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Texas farmed deer may have spread brain disease in the wild


AUSTIN, Texas – State wildlife officials are struggling to trace and stop the spread of deer infected with contagious brain disease after ranchers sold potentially infected animals to hundreds of buyers and took them away. released on game ranches across the state.

Deer from three breeding facilities tested positive for chronic wasting disease in March. Two sites are in Uvalde County, west of San Antonio, and owned by the same breeder, while the third is in Hunt County, outside of Dallas. Two other facilities that received deer from Uvalde sites have had positive cases since then, bringing the total of known infected deer to 10 so far.

Authorities do not know how many infected animals the farmers were able to sell. Deer breeding is a major business in Texas, where patrons often pay $ 10,000 or more for private ranches surrounded by tall fences to hunt males created using artificial insemination, captive breeding and additional food.


Wolfgang Kaehler via Getty Images

A white-tailed deer buck in the Hill Country of Texas near Hunt.

The spread of cervid encephalopathy could have serious consequences for the state’s wildlife. The disease causes fatal neurodegeneration in deer such as deer, elk and moose.

The state’s research effort identified 267 sites that received deer from which went to five facilities with positive results, including 101 sites where captive-bred deer were released.

High fences block movement in and out of game ranches that normally buy and release deer. But it is not uncommon for deer to escape, either crossing the high fence or overtaking it when damaged. Inclement weather, such as the winter storm in February, can knock down fences.

This raises the possibility that the disease has spread from captive deer to wild deer across the state, said Mitch Lockwood, director of the big game program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“It’s what keeps me awake at night,” Lockwood told HuffPost. “We hope and pray that this has not happened. But we can’t find these deer.

More than half of the animals dating back to the original outbreaks of CWD have still not been tested, Lockwood said. In some cases, state officials wait for pending test results before asking the breeder to test suspected deer. In a few cases, breeders have refused to test them, hoping to gain enough time for their calves to fall first.

Screening for CWD usually requires the removal of lymph nodes or brainstem tissue from a carcass. In most cases, buyers have to kill the animals they have purchased to test for the disease, although live testing is increasingly available.

These delays could facilitate the spread of CWD. The state requires a quarantine for deer exposed to the disease. But if infected animals are moved from one of the sites that have not yet submitted their tests, they could expose deer that can still legally move around the state.

One reason for the delay is that the state was letting deer breeders batch tissue samples and sending them all in before renewing their breeding licenses at the end of the year.. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission changed this last year, instead requiring samples to be sent to within two weeks of the death of a deer.

But the change only took effect in March, shortly before the first positive tests returned. By that time, hundreds of potentially exposed deer had already spent months moving across states and on game ranches.

Some say officials’ efforts have not gone far enough. Breeder Brian Treadwell petitioned the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last week, demanding a special commission meeting to consider stopping all deer movements.

“You can no longer set up a containment zone around these sites,” Treadwell told HuffPost. “I don’t think moving them around is such a good idea anymore. “

An incurable disease that tends to spread

Like mad cow disease in cattle or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, chronic wasting disease causes brain proteins called prions to misfold, resulting in slow and painful death.

It is not known whether the disease can spread to humans, such as mad cow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against eating CWD-positive deer meat.

Wildlife biologists consider the disease to be one of the most serious threats to the country’s deer herds. Once it takes root in a population, wildlife agencies have no method of eliminating it. Instead, they hope to contain it – a strategy that usually involves reducing the size of the herd and further killing the older males, among whom the disease is usually concentrated.

CWD first appeared in Texas in 2012 in free-range mule deer near the New Mexico border. Since then, the state has identified 66 wild deer infected with the disease in seven counties in the state.

More than 70% of the state’s 224 positive tests over the past nine years have occurred either among captive deer or at release sites. CWD was identified in breeding deer at release sites in Medina County, west of San Antonio, a year before free-range deer tested positive there for the first time in 2017. Genetic testing later showed that the infected free-range deer appeared more closely related to captive nearby animals than to the wild.

The recent spate of CWD cases and the possible spread in the wild have fueled long-standing concerns about the controversial Texas deer-breeding business.

Texas is one of twelve states that allow private citizens to breed deer, but classify them as state-managed wildlife, according to a 2018 report from the Quality deer management association (now the National Deer Association). Most states classify captive deer as cattle. Almost 1,000 Texans are licensed to breed deer.

Selective deer breeding and captive breeding allows breeders to create males with larger bodies and antlers, resulting in higher prices in the private hunting operations that use them.

The expansion of the privatized hunt for artificially bred deer over the past two decades has given many ranches the opportunity to remain intact and economically viable – a ecological victory in a state where about 95% of the land is private and large farms tend to subdivide over time. The area of ​​many game ranches far exceeds the typical range of a white-tailed deer.

But most conservation groups oppose the artificial handling of deer herds and view the high fences blocking their movement as an effective privatization of wildlife, which is managed in the United States as a public resource.

Concentrate the animals

While captive deer are no more or less susceptible to CWD than wild deer, critics have long argued that deer herders spread disease by concentrating animals together and then moving them over distances much greater than ‘they wouldn’t if we let them roam free.

What remains unclear is how CWD entered the breeding facilities in the first place. None of the breeding establishments had received deer from out of state for six years, according to Lockwood.

CWD is unlikely to have spread from free-range deer in herders’ pens. A wild deer should first jump a high fence to enter the breeder’s property, then jump a second to enter the pen.

One possibility is that CWD has spread to the facilities through dead deer rather than alive. Sick prions can travel on the carcass of a deer killed elsewhere, such as when a hunter goes to an area where the disease is present and brings meat home.

According to Lockwood, educating everyone who moves deer and their carcasses, whether they are ranchers, live trappers or hunters, is the best way to control the spread of CWD.

“It is without a doubt the greatest threat to deer in North America,” Lockwood said. “And it will only get worse if it spreads.”

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