The discovery of two mule deer in West Texas confirmed with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) doesn’t pose a crisis to animal health, but it has sparked a response from Texas animal health officials, Texas Parks & Wildlife (TPWD) leaders and a number of cervid breeders in Texas who warn that over reaction, stiff regulations and expensive mandates could create an economic disaster for one of the state’s fastest growing and successful industries.
Gilbert Adams, III, president of the Texas Deer Association (TDA), a member support group of cervid breeders and supporters in Texas, says his organization has long supported an active monitoring system for CWD control. In fact, most of the 1,000-plus Texas breeders participate in two such programs: the first a mandatory TPWD testing program initiated in 2002 that requires all cervid breeders in the state to test at least 20 percent of animal deaths each year, a procedure that must be paid by the breeder. Secondly, most breeders in the state participate in a Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) CWD Monitored Herd program, which requires testing of 100 percent of all eligible deaths each year.
CWD is an infectious neurological disease that has been found in cervid populations— mostly free-ranging populations—in 19 additional states. TPWD has previously stated there is no indication that CWD in deer can lead to disease in native livestock or people. Wildlife officials regard prevention as the primary and most effective tool to combat CWD.
Adams is quick to point out that Texas deer breeders support monitoring and testing programs designed to limit the movement of animal diseases among free range wildlife and breeding stock at hundreds of facilities across the state.
“What we are asking is that regulations placed on Texas breeders are in line with the same type of programs state agencies are using to monitor free ranging deer. We are fortunate in Texas that we have evaded CWD until now. CWD monitoring and testing programs have been around for a long time. The truth is, there is no avoiding the disease sooner or later,” Adams said.
Monitoring program useful but expensive
He says an active monitoring program is still useful in gauging the extent of the disease and to aid in slowing or preventing the movement of the disease outside of restricted zones.
“But monitoring wild herds is a difficult and expensive process that someone has to pay for. TPWD doesn’t have an endless budget, so the extent of testing and monitoring programs must be efficient and reasonable. We would like to see that same kind of attitude toward the state’s breeders who are paying as much as $1.3 million annually right now to meet state mandated programs and to participate in voluntary programs. If additional regulations are implemented that require higher production costs, breeders could be in serious predicament,” he added.
Whoever pays the bill, the taxpayer or the breeder, CWD programs are going to require some serious cash, depending on the extent of the program. But considering the positive economic impact of the Texas cervid breeding program each year, many argue the cost is worth it.
According to a 2007 Texas A&M economic study of the deer breeding industry in Texas, it is perhaps the fastest growing industry in rural America. In Texas, breeders on average spent $306,000 annually—on 2007 production costs—and made a significant $318.4 million impact on the state’s economy that year. In addition, when incorporating the indirect impacts of the industry, for example the farm’s expenditures on feed, veterinary services, fuel and other purchases, the total economic impact was about $523 million. Add to that hunters who are the major customers and driving force behind the breeding industry and contribute another $129 million toward breeder product, the overall impact totals more than $650 million.
In addition, the industry provided more than 7,300 jobs to Texans in 2007. Adams says the greatest impact of the industry, however, is in the strengthening of rural areas in the state.
But not all is fair for the industry
“A proposed federal rule (currently) in the hearings stage may add more investment burden on breeding operations. The Texas deer breeder industry has blossomed since the turn of the century. While we are a healthy, profitable and growing industry, like any businesses or industry, profits are often quickly eaten by production costs and unexpected expenses. A successful breeder can quickly find more cost than profit in a given year,” Adams says.
He says TDA is a supporter and partner with TWPD, TAHC, and others in actions that address animal health and other issues, but he hopes that state leaders make certain any response plan will offer solutions to more effectively monitor free-ranging deer populations across the state, and they encourage that all stakeholders be included in the development and implementation of any potential response plan.
“There is not a single breeder in Texas that isn’t concerned about CWD and other animal disease. But it’s necessary to take a scientific approach to a problem like this. Studies from other states dealing with this problem for years provide proven methods and ways to approach control, and we should look close at these,” Adams suggests.
Eradication attempts ineffective
Indeed, attempts to eradicate CWD in other states, such as Wisconsin, have proven generally ineffective and have had disastrous effects on local economies dependent on hunting related goods and services. Adams said that any response to the detection of CWD must be constructed in such a way that neither the $2 billion hunting industry nor the almost $1 billion Texas deer breeding industry suffer from an ill-designed plan.
“We must also look at the greatest threat. The two mule deer confirmed with CWD in the spring were taken from the remote mountains of Hudspeth County near the New Mexico border. We have known for several years CWD existed in mule deer and elk in New Mexico—just across the border. A case of CWD in white-tail deer in Texas has never been found, and this is important,” Adams notes.
While mule deer are hunted in Texas, they are only found in a few geographic areas. White-tail deer, on the other hand, are the most hunted and abundant animals in Texas. Adams says extensive effort should be made to control CWD from moving into white-tail populations. He says that could create a crisis for the Texas hunting industry, another major component in the state’s economy.
In addition, in April 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its long-awaited report summarizing that cervid (deer and elk) breeders across the nation have tested approximately 170,120 breeder cervids since 1998 and only 114 white-tailed deer tested positive for CWD - none of which were in Texas. The other 289 positive test results were reportedly from elk samples submitted by elk breeders.
On the other hand, out of approximately 848,706 free-ranging (non-breeder) cervids tested across the nation since 1998, approximately 3,600 free-ranging cervids were found to be CWD positive.
USDA also noted that the total number of CWD positive wild cervids reported to APHIS is not absolute since not all of the CWD positive findings in the wild herds were reported once the population was recognized to have affected animals. The USDA data represents only those animals tested, not the total population, and CWD surveillance programs for both wild and breeder cervids differ according to state regulations.
Texas white-tails not infected
TPWD reports that from 2002 through 2010, a total of 33,900 breeder and wild cervids have been tested for CWD, but CWD has never been found in Texas in white-tailed deer.
In response to confirmation of CWD in Texas, TPWD officials have established primary and secondary emergency zones in an effort to stop the movement of mule deer out of the affected area. When hunting season opens later this fall, wildlife checkpoints will be established leading out of the zones to monitor and in some cases test animals being transported. Road kill deer will also be tested for CWD.
State officials say they will also approach the Texas House with a report and plan to determine if any additional funding is possible to support state wildlife response programs.
As CWD disease continues to spread across the Southwest, officials warn the road of control and monitoring will likely be a long and sometimes hard one. Breeders say they hope that road will head equally in all directions.