It is not surprising that the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a wild white-tailed deer has turned Minnesota's deer management program on end. After all, our state boasts nearly 500,000 licensed white-tailed deer hunters and it has a deep-seated hunting culture.
For many folks, deer camp is a family endeavor. Each autumn, families and friends join together to participate in this tradition by harvesting deer and subsequently eating and sharing the venison they've taken. Many outdoorsmen and women schedule their vacations around the deer season and spend their recreational time in the off season watching and photographing the animals in their natural setting.
But deer hunting is more than a way of life for Minnesotans. Hunting activities contribute millions of dollars to the state economy. According to the organization Hunting Works for Minnesota, the state's hunters spend nearly $500 million annually, and the ripple effect of the hunting industry generates nearly $1.5 billion.
So what is it about CWD that has people upset? The disease is caused by an abnormally shaped protein known as a prion that is transmitted by the body secretions of infected deer, elk and moose.
Research has shown that prions are virtually indestructible. They can't be eradicated by cooking or other means that are used to make food safe from germ-related diseases. Furthermore, they remain in the soil and are infectious for years to come.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's no strong evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans who eat infected meat. While that is comforting, research studies have shown that CWD prions can "infect" human proteins in the laboratory at a low rate, and that cattle and other animal species injected with prions from white-tailed deer can also be infected. Therefore, it is still unclear whether CWD can be transmitted naturally to humans, cattle or other non-cervid animals.
Given the uncertainty, it is likely that some folks will stop hunting deer altogether, for fear of eating the meat of an infected animal. Others will probably continue to hunt and opt to have their deer tested, or may even disregard the disease altogether.
Some things are certain, however. The DNR will continue indefinitely its CWD surveillance, and hunters and maybe even nonhunting taxpayers will be left to pay for the testing and cleanup.
Many citizens, hunters and nonhunters alike, are asking how this disease entered the wild deer population. The nearest known case in a wild animal is more than 100 miles away in Wisconsin.
Studies have shown that once it enters a herd, CWD infection rates are highest when deer and elk are in close quarters. Many area residents have pointed to a local elk farm where four elk were found to be infected. The wild deer that was positive for CWD was shot within a few miles of the facility.
Although it seems plausible, there is no way to prove with absolute certainty that the infection originated with one of the four infected elk that were identified within the enclosure.
In a recent public forum held in Rochester, a representative of the captive cervid farm industry said that the disease was present in Minnesota's wild deer population, suggesting that wild deer are a threat to the captive animals.
But this theory is not supported by data that was generated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Since 2002, the DNR has monitored the state's deer herd by testing for CWD at a level that offered a reasonable statistical confidence that the disease had not yet entered the population. And a recently completed special deer hunt near Pine Island, where the original infected deer was found, turned up no further cases of CWD.
To hunters and those who raise cervid animals in captivity, it is obvious that the disease is detrimental. Regardless of the source of the infection, it would now seem prudent for these groups to work together to increase the level of oversight and regulation by enacting legislation that would prevent the disease from occurring elsewhere in the state.
Eliminating CWD from the wild deer herd will not be a simple task. But with hard work and a lot of luck, it is possible that in years to come we can look back on these events and breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Chris Kolbert is a free-lance writer and a lifelong outdoorsman. He holds an advanced degree in biology and is a registered microbiologist.