Part of state’s deer population wasting away

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

One of the biggest stories in Arkansas this year involves four legs – and I’m not talking about the two apiece used by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’m talking about those used by deer, a growing number of whom have a deadly, incurable neurologic disease that spreads easily.

Chronic wasting disease is caused not by viruses or bacteria but by a protein called prions that attack a deer’s brain, sort of like mad cow disease. Prions are spread through contact with an infected deer’s urine, feces, saliva, blood or carcass. They’re not living, so they can’t be killed, and they last a long time on the forest floor.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has been watching this disease for decades as it started in the western United States and then moved closer. When an elk felled by a hunter tested positive last fall, Game and Fish Commission members took notice. Then in February, a seemingly healthy deer that appeared near Ponca and was oddly not afraid of people suddenly grew sick and died.

AGFC initially tested 266 deer in a 125,000-acre area and found 23 percent were infected. No other state has seen that high an initial detection rate. Among the concerns is that 12 of 48 fawns tested were infected. By comparison, Wisconsin sampled more than 14,000 fawns and found only 24 cases, legislators were told Monday.

More samples are being taken. Infected deer have been found in five counties – Newton, Boone, Carroll, Madison, and Pope, with Newton hit the hardest. The rest of the state so far is clean, but deer are mobile. The one case in Pope County was well south of the cluster of cases in Newton County.

Why is this a big deal? Arkansas is home to 500,000 licensed deer hunters, and that’s not including those under 16 who aren’t required to buy a license. The state last year issued 21,515 nonresident big game hunting licenses to out-of-state hunters. Deer hunting not only is big business, but it’s a lot of small businesses. It’s also an important part of the state’s culture – an activity where grandparents, parents and children spend time together in places that often don’t have a good cell phone signal. Many schools close at the beginning of deer season.

The good news is that, currently, you and I probably cannot catch chronic wasting disease. Remember, it’s caused by a protein, not a virus that could mutate and jump from one species to the next. Also, the disease hasn’t spread to livestock in the wild. On the other hand, the prions can withstand 1,000-degree temperatures, so they can’t be cooked out.

Now state officials are trying to respond to a disease that can’t be cured or eradicated. On Friday, the Game and Fish Commission will vote on a set of regulations meant to limit the spread. Among the proposals would be to allow hunters to kill more deer and elk to thin the herd.

That proposal shouldn’t be too controversial. However, another would require landowners who erect high fences to leave openings so deer can move freely in and out. The idea is to reduce the chances that a deer will be stuck in captivity in an enclosed area, where it would be more likely to come in contact with an infected deer’s body fluids or carcass.

The idea is not well fleshed out, and I’m not sure I understand the logic. Wouldn’t it better for a dying deer to be trapped rather than roaming free? More importantly, several otherwise sympathetic legislators who were informed of the proposal in a committee meeting Monday raised objections regarding private property rights. People who want to build fences on their land ought to be able to do so, they said. We’ll see if that particular idea gets scrapped.

So let’s sum it up. There are many sick deer in part of the state. The disease is fatal, incurable, difficult to contain and likely to spread. But it supposedly won’t make us or livestock sick, and, for now, there are still 70 counties in our Arkansas home where the deer play.

Sorry for the discouraging word.

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