— Texas wildlife
officials are battling to track down and contain the spread of deer infected with a contagious brain
disease after breeders sold potentially infected animals
to hundreds of buyers and released them on game ranches across the state.
Deer at three breeding facilities tested positive for chronic wasting disease
in March; two are in the county of Uvalde, west of San Antonio, and are owned by the same breeder, while the third is in Hunt County, outside Dallas. Since then, two more facilities that received deer from the Uvalde sites have had positive cases, bringing the total number of known infected deer to ten.
Officials have no idea how many infected animals the breeders may have sold. Deer breeding is a big business
in Texas, where customers will often pay $10,000 or more to hunt bucks created through artificial insemination, captive rearing, and supplemental feed on private ranches surrounded by high fencing.
, which causes fatal neurodegeneration in cervids such as deer, elk, and moose, could have serious consequences for the state's wildlife.
The state's tracing effort has identified 267 sites that received deer from five facilities with positive results, including 101 sites where captive-bred deer were released.
High fences restrict movement into and out of game ranches that normally buy and release deer, but it is not uncommon for deer to escape, either by climbing over the high fencing or getting past it when it is damaged. Severe weather, such as the February winter storm, can cause fencing to collapse.
According to Mitch Lockwood, big game program director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, this raises the possibility that the disease has spread from captive to wild deer across the state.
“That’s what keeps me awake at night,” Lockwood admitted to Stardia. “We hope and pray that didn’t happen, but we can’t find those deer.”
More than half of the animals traced back to the original CWD outbreaks remain untested, according to Lockwood. In some cases, state officials are waiting for pending test results before asking the breeder to test suspect deer, and in a few cases, breeders have refused to test them in order to give their fawns enough time to drop first.
CWD testing usually entails extracting lymph nodes or brain stem tissue from a carcass; in most cases, buyers must kill the animals they purchased to test for the disease, though live testing is becoming more common.
The state requires quarantine for deer exposed to the disease, but if infected animals moved from any of the sites that have yet to submit their tests, they could expose deer that can still legally move around the state.
One reason for the delay is that the state used to allow deer breeders
to batch tissue samples and send them all in before renewing breeding licenses at the end of the year, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission
changed that last year, requiring samples to be sent in within two weeks of a deer's death
However, the change did not go into effect until March, just before the first positive tests were returned, and by that time, hundreds of potentially exposed deer had already spent months traveling across states and onto game ranches.
Some argue that officials' efforts haven't gone far enough. Rancher Brian Treadwell petitioned the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last week, requesting a special commission meeting to consider halting all deer movements.
“You can’t put up a containment zone around these sites any longer,” Treadwell told Stardia, “and I don’t think moving
them around is such a good idea any longer.”
An incurable disease with a high proclivity for spread
Chronic wasting disease, like mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, causes brain proteins known as prions to misfold, resulting in a slow and painful death.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
advises against eating CWD-positive deer meat because it is unknown whether the disease can spread to humans, as mad cow disease can.
Wildlife biologists consider the disease to be one of the most serious threats to the country's deer herds. Once it has established itself in a population, wildlife agencies have no way of removing it; instead, they hope to contain it — a strategy that usually entails reducing herd size and killing off more of the older bucks, among whom the illness typically concentrates.
CWD first appeared in Texas in free-roaming mule deer near the New Mexico border
in 2012, and the state has since identified 66 wild deer infected with the disease in seven counties throughout the state.
CWD was discovered in breeder deer at release sites in Medina County, west of San Antonio, a year before free-ranging deer tested positive there in 2017. Genetic testing later revealed that the infected free-ranging deer appeared to be more closely related to nearby captive deer.
The recent outbreak of CWD cases and potential spread to the wild has fueled long-standing concerns in Texas about the contentious deer breeding industry.
According to a 2018 report from the Quality Deer Management Association, Texas is one of a dozen states that allow private citizens to breed deer but classify them as state-managed wildlife, while most states classify captive deer as livestock. Approximately 1,000 Texans
are licensed to breed deer.
Selectively breeding and raising deer in captivity allows breeders to produce bucks with larger bodies and antlers, driving up prices at private hunting
operations that use them.
Over the last two decades, the expansion of privatized hunting of artificially bred deer has given many ranches an opportunity to remain intact and economically viable — an ecological win in a state where approximately 95% of land is privately held and large holdings tend to be subdivided over time. The acreage of many game ranches far exceeds a typical whitetail deer's range.
groups, however, oppose the artificial manipulation of deer herds and see the high fences that restrict their movement as an effective privatization of wildlife, which is managed as a public resource in the United States
Animals Who Concentrate
While captive deer are no more or less susceptible to CWD than wild deer, critics have long claimed that deer breeders spread disease by concentrating animals together and then transporting them over distances far greater than they would cover if left to roam freely.
What is unknown is how CWD got into the breeder facilities in the first place; according to Lockwood, none of the facilities had received deer from out of state in the previous six years.
CWD is unlikely to have spread from free-roaming deer into breeder pens because a wild deer would have to first jump a high fence to get onto the breeder's property, and then another to get into the pen.
The diseased prions can travel on the carcass of a cervid killed elsewhere, such as when a hunter travels to an area where the disease is present and brings meat home.
According to Lockwood, the best way to stop the spread of CWD is to raise awareness among all people
who move deer and their carcasses, whether they are breeders, live trappers, or hunters.
“It is without a doubt the most serious threat to North American deer,” Lockwood said, adding that if it spreads, the situation will only worsen.