Georgia Closes Doors To Farm Deer

Concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease continue to rise, sparking congressional hearings and creation of a federal Task Force.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | August 7, 2002

In June, 2002, Georgia DNR and the Department of Agriculture enacted an emergency rule closing Georgia’s borders to the importation of farmed, captive-bred deer and elk in an effort to prevent chronic wasting disease (CWD) from reaching this state.

The emergency rule is good only for 120 days, but in that time the agencies will be able to enact a permanent ban on deer and elk importation that would only be lifted if the CWD threat east of the Mississippi River ends.

Georgia is among several eastern states now hurriedly increasing their vigilance and their knowledge of CWD, a fatal disease of the central nervous system in the same family as mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. First recognized in captive mule deer in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD has spread, particularly in the last six years, to captive deer and elk herds in seven western states and two Canadian provinces. In four of those western states the disease has jumped to free-ranging deer, and recently Wisconsin became the first state east of the Mississippi River to discover CWD in wild deer. Wisonsin DNR announced last month an effort to kill 100 percent of the whitetail deer in a 3-county area where the disease had appeared.

According to Todd Holbrook, Chief of WRD Game Management, CWD is apparently being spread from state-to-state in captive and farmed animals.

“Most of the speculation about the way CWD jumps around is you put 18 wheels under it and move it,” he said. “It’s associated with places where people import deer.”

Thus many eastern states, like Georgia, have shut down imports of deer and elk, or plan to.

Though deer farming is not a huge industry in Georgia as it is in some states, there are a few large operations. Tommy Lynn Cashion runs the largest by far, Flint River Land & Cattle Co. in Meriwether County, which currently has more than 2,000 red deer (Europe’s version of the Rocky Mountain elk, but half the size). Tommy Lynn said that the importation ban won’t hurt her for awhile, because her herd is large enough to be sustainable without refreshing the genetics with new breeding animals. But smaller operations in Georgia may feel the bite. Meanwhile, Tommy Lynn’s main market, selling venison to Atlanta restaurants, is open.

“The problem we will be looking at shortly is what has happened in Maine,” she said. “Because of the situation in Wisconsin, [Maine’s] venison market has just gone to nil overnight because of CWD. [Restaurant owners] will no longer buy domestic venison.

“It will hit us real shortly, once the fear and panic spread this far and the restaurants hear about it, they’ll quit buying domestic venison, too.”

CWD has never been documented in red deer, but neither has anyone ruled out the possibility that red deer can contract the disease.

For Tommy Lynn, the biggest problem right now is what to do with “shooter stock” — stags that are no longer breeders and are too old to be sold for venison. Normally, these are sold to Texas, Florida or Oklahoma where they immediately go into fenced game ranches and are hunted for a fee, but that option is gone now that those states have banned imports. The solution, Tommy Lynn said, is for Georgia to lift its ban on selling hunts for penned deer, or “canned hunts.”

“We just want them to do this for existing deer farmers,” said Tommy Lynn, “not open it up for people to have game preserves here. We’re looking to be able to keep viable the deer farms that are already here until this scare is over with.”

But Georgia DNR doesn’t want to start down that road, not even temporarily.

“If you look at all of Georgia’s facilities, the deer farms, zoos, wild-animal dealers, elk breeders, we’ve got roughly 80 captive facilities for some form of deer or elk,” said Todd Holbrook. “Wisconsin has 980. That’s part of their problem, the canned hunts. That’s just another reason why we don’t want to proliferate those facilities here. The wild resource is far too important to let somebody profiteer and put our wild resource at risk.”

Though Georgia can close its borders to permitted, captive animals, there is little WRD can do about another risky venture, the illegal importation of deer.

“The huge risk out there would be some private hunting club deciding they want to, quote, ‘genetically engineer’ their deer with a, quote, ‘superior’ buck, and that superior buck happened to be carrying CWD,” said Holbrook. “Then, we’ve got a huge problem, and that would be extremely difficult to prevent.”

Education, Holbrook said, is the hope in stopping such illegal imports.

“We’ve got to let hunters know how serious this disease is,” he said. “Look at what’s happening in Wisconsin.”

The next step for WRD is surveillance to make certain the disease isn’t already here. According to Holbrook, WRD plans to identify “hot spots” around the state where CWD potentially could have already entered. These include regions surrounding exotic deer farms and exhibits. The surveillance will involve recruiting hunters and hunt clubs in “hot-spot” areas to submit brain samples from all deer killed for CWD testing.

One hot spot could be Cherokee County. In 1999, GON followed the travels of 12 Rocky Mountain elk, brought into Georgia illegally, that escaped in Cherokee County. WRD plans to review the origins of these elk and, if they came from CWD-infected regions, Cherokee County will fall under CWD surveillance. Though all of the elk are now accounted for, several of them were on the loose long enough to have been a risk to local deer if the elk were carrying CWD.

So far, Georgia has been lucky. In addition to Wisconsin, other states are faced with conducting major kill-offs of wild deer to stop the disease. In Colorado in the last year, sharpshooters firing from helicopters have killed more than 10,000 deer. Many elk and deer farms in western states have been “depopulated.” In response to what has been called an emergency situation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, congressional hearings were held in May to look at what to do to stop CWD. The first step was the formation of a joint CWD Task Force, made up of personnel from the USDA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Task Force is working on a 5-year national management plan for CWD.

One of the most alarming aspects of CWD is that so little is understood about how it spreads and functions. Here are a few things that are known:

• To the best of scientific knowledge, CWD is always fatal to deer. Researchers have not documented any deer that recovered from the disease.

• CWD is not a virus but a “prion” protein that can live outside of a deer or elk’s body and remains viable for a very long time. It is not living matter, so it can’t be killed, and scientists are only beginning to test ways to neutralize it. For example, temperatures in excess of 1,800 degrees are needed to render it harmless. Your charcoal grill won’t even make it angry.

• Deer do not show visible signs of CWD infection (emaciation, disorientation, etc.) until a minimum of 17 or 18 months after being infected, perhaps longer. Once visible signs appear, the animal is close to death. Thus, CWD could enter a new region and have a year and a half to spread before hunters or other people might discover the outbreak by sighting sick animals.

• There is no live-animal test for CWD yet: only by examining brain samples under a microscope can scientists tell if a deer was infected.

• Scientists don’t know what type of “agent” carries CWD from one deer to another, but it spreads directly from deer-to-deer rather easily. Because the agent is so durable, deer may also get it indirectly from feces, animal remains, and soil.

• As far as human health goes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta investigated a potential connection between CWD and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans who consumed venison. The investigation found “no strong evidence for a causal link.” The World Health Organization has also said there is “currently no evidence” that CWD can be transmitted from deer to humans. Still, both organizations recommend caution in handling infected deer, and hunters are warned not to handle or eat deer that appear sick.

That recommendation may come from the history of diseases similar to CWD. Mad cow disease, for instance, has resulted in the deaths of 130 Europeans to date.

Even if harmless to people, CWD could have a devastating impact on deer if it reached Georgia. If you hear or know of someone who has imported illegal deer or plans to do so, call WRD Game Management at (770) 918-6404.

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