Brett Roper’s column (The Herald Journal) on chronic wasting disease repeats the same old scaremongering we’ve heard for years now. We’ve heard claims that CWD will cause huge population declines of deer and elk. That it will destroy hunting. There were even a bunch of tabloid stories this year about “zombie deer disease,” evoking images of “The Walking Dead.”
Has any of that actually happened? Let’s look at the evidence.
CWD was first found in Colorado back in the 1960s at a university research lab. It was first detected in a free-ranging deer in the 1980s, also in Colorado. Since then, free-ranging animals have helped spread the disease to a number of other states.
Yet, despite CWD existing for decades in states, there has not been a deer herd decline attributable to the disease.
In Colorado, hunting is still going strong and the state has the largest elk population in the country. In Nebraska, which first detected CWD about 20 years ago, the Associated Press recently noted, “no population decline attributable to the disease have yet occurred.” It’s a similar story in South Dakota.
Roper also claims that the National Herd Certification Program has been a failure. This program is used by deer and elk farmers who wish to move animals across state lines. In order to be certified, a farm must test every eligible animal for a minimum of 5 years with zero positive results. Many farms have been testing for over 15 years without ever finding CWD.
Certification mitigates the risk of one farm accidentally sending a CWD-positive animal to another. And in the off chance that does happen, there’s a traceability requirement so that quarantines can be put into place. The program has done its job.
Just like we can’t eradicate bluetongue or other wildlife diseases, there will always be CWD somewhere. Scientists believe CWD can even occur spontaneously. Fortunately, there’s no evidence that CWD causes population declines, and it has never infected a human. Factors such as predation and weather have much more of an effect on deer populations, even if they don’t get written about as much as CWD. Let’s keep everything in perspective.
Travis Lowe, North American Elk Breeders Association