Fewer hunters, more brain disease
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2002:
ANNAPOLIS, DENVER, HARRISBURG, MADISON, WASHINGTON
D.C.–Maryland Governor Parris Glendening on May 15 vetoed a bill
which would have increased the state deer hunting season from 13 days
to at least 21 days, including the first Sunday of the season.
Vetoing a bill overwhelmingly favored by the hunting lobby
was political suicide not long ago, especially in a southern state,
and even in the name of keeping the sanctity of the Sabbath.
Glendening, 59, is a bit different. He has not eaten red
meat or poultry since 1999, a daring dietary choice in a state in
which the poultry industry accounts for 40% of all farm income,
hatching and killing more than 300 million chickens per year.
But Glendening was watching the polls. On that very day in
neighboring West Virginia, which a generation ago had one of the
highest rates of hunting participation per capita in the whole U.S.,
a referendum to allow Sunday hunting was crushed in all 35 counties.
In no county did more than 43% of the voters favor Sunday hunting.
The strength of fundamentalist religion in West Virginia had
something to do with it–but most other so-called “Bible Belt” states
allow Sunday hunting.
A few days later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed
that the number of active hunters in the U.S. has fallen by 7% since
1996, and 22% since 1985. Shooting “small game,” the traditional
pursuit of young hunters, is down 22% since 1996.
“Hunters now make up only 4.6% of the U.S. population,
compared to 31% who are wildlife watchers,” said Fund for Animals
executive vice president Michael Markarian.
Added Fund national director Heidi Prescott, “The end of
hunting is no more than a generation away.”
Yet deer have never been more abundant, and the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service introduction of nonmigratory giant Canada geese
throughout the nation during the 1950s through the mid-1980s was so
successful that most states which have giant Canada geese are now
hiring USDA Wildlife Services to exterminate some of them.
Traditional wildlife management was public gamekeeping. The
goal was to keep targets plentiful. It was a resounding
success–except that the public stopped wanting more deer, geese,
and other species to shoot as long as 20 years ago, while the
Michigan Department of Natural Resources was still hosting seminars
for other wildlife agencies on how to raise a “huntable surplus” of
deer by boosting summer deer populations to 33% above the winter
For more than a generation, wildlife managers ignored
eroding interest in hunting, predicting a resurgence when the sons
of the Baby Boomers came of age. But now the grandsons of many
Boomers are old enough to hunt, with no resurgence in sight.
To keep the Boomers hunting as they aged and got tired of
hiking with heavy firearms, and in hopes of attracting young hunters
by offering easier targets, many state agencies encouraged the
growth of game farming and “canned hunts,” in which the prey are
confined within fences. Now that strategy too has backfired. The
spread of “canned hunts,” and translocations of deer and elk to stock
them, brought the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, a mysterious
brain ailment of elk and deer that appears to be closely related to
the sheep disease scrapie and Mad Cow Disease, devastating the
British beef industry since 1986 and now found throughout Europe
(except Sweden) and Japan.
Like Mad Cow Disease, CWD is believed to become the
invariably fatal new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (nvCJD) in
humans. But CWD was first identified in penned deer and elk in 1966,
20 years before the first identification of Mad Cow Disease, and may
have been infecting animals–and people–for that much longer.
Before turning up in Wisconsin, CWD was identified in Colorado,
Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and
the prairie provinces of Canada.
Only the province of Alberta resisted the establishment of
“canned hunts” and resultant risk of infection.
“States may have been too interested politically in the game
farm industry,” observed Representative Jay Inslee (D-Washington) at
a May 16 Congressional hearing on CWD and what to do about it.
CWD is believed to have been in Wisconsin, the easternmost
state where it has been confirmed, for at least four years; maybe
longer. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel staff reporter John Fauber
disclosed on April 29 that Minneapolis computer engineer Kevin Boss
developed an apparent case of nvCJD back in 1994, at age 39–“and he
regularly consumed venison, including from Wisconsin,” Fauber
wrote. Boss died two years later.
“In October 2001,” Fauber continued, “a study in the
journal Archives of Neurology reported on the cases of three
relatively young individuals who contracted CJD and also had been
deer hunters, or had regularly eaten venison. The three, who were
from Maine, Oklahoma, and Utah, all were under age 30, and came
down with the disease between 1997 and 2000.”
The odds of either a British beef-eater or an American hunter
getting nvCJD are quite low. Only 120 cases of nvCJD have been
identified, globally, since 1996, when the relationship with Mad
Cow Disease was first established. The chances of deer or elk
getting CWD are also low: among the 160,000 ranched elk in the U.S.,
only 259 have been diagnosed with the disease in the past 30 months.
Still, because the consequences of infection are so grim, the risk
appears to be scaring many hunters out of the woods.
Surveying 405 Wisconsin deer hunters, the St. Norbert
College Survey Center in Hayward, Wisconsin, recently learned that
because CWD has been identified in 18 deer in the state since fall
2001, 36% of the hunters say they may not hunt deer this fall.
Another 6% are uncertain if they will. Thus Wisconsin deer hunting
participation could fall by 248,000, in a state that sold 688,540
deer licences during 2001.
If hunting practices including translocating deer and elk
from state to state and do-it-yourself field butchery helped to
spread CWD, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources theorized
in April, perhaps the damage could be undone by enlisting hunters to
fight the disease by killing all the deer in the areas where
afflicted animals were found. And maybe it could all look like a
good deed if the meat of deer who look healthy was given to food
Six hundred hunters volunteered to kill deer for the
Wisconsin CWD identification program–but when asked to kill as many
as 15,000 deer instead of just a few hundred, many balked.
Landowners who lease hunting rights organized to oppose the plan as
Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter.
Similar resistance has emerged in Pennsylvania, where on
April 29 the state senate Game and Fish Committee voted 10-1 or a
bill to eliminate state game commission oversight of deer and elk
farming. The industry would instead by overseen by the state
department of agriculture.
The Hunger Task Force, of Mil-waukee, balked when the
Wisconsin DNR admitted it could not certify the safety of donated
venison this year. The DNR-coordinated Wisconsin Deer Donation
Program and the Hunt for the Hungry program, however, are still
The chances of ever eradicating CWD from the wild are slim.
Even 16 years of killing every cow in Britain who might have been
exposed to either Mad Cow Disease or scrapie has not eliminated Mad
Cow Disease, and that was logistically much easier than
exterminating wildlife distributed over regions that are many times
bigger than Britain.
But the National Park Service has already committed $1.2
million to attempted CWD eradication at Rocky Mountain National Park,
Colorado, and Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.
That is just to start. Since CWD was first identified in
Canadian elk, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has killed more
than 8,000 animals at cost of $30 million. Colorado officials killed
10,000 deer just in 2001. The total U.S. Interior Department budget
request for fighting CWD is $14.1 million, and the USDA wants $14.9
Hunters like to claim that they deserve special privileges
because their license fees pay the cost of wildlife management. That
they will pay the full cost of cleaning up the CWD mess, however,
seems doubtful –even though they made it.