Responding to Negative Media

Deer and elk farmers have been dismayed about all the negative media coverage our industry has been getting lately. Here is a rebuttal written by very knowledgeable person. Use these “facts” and examples to respond to misleading articles in your local media.

I was forwarded a copy of your article on CWD published 31 March, 2002 and read it with interest. Apparently, you have – as many outdoor columnists have done – written an article based on press releases and comments from state DNR experts. There were, however, some important points left out of your article and I would like to make them clear.

First of all, CWD is indeed a serious and mysterious disease among deer. Its origin is not totally clear, but we do know it was first observed in the Colorado State Research pens in 1967. Little action was taken for some time, and animals were allowed to leave the area during this time. Some argue the disease was present in the wild all along, but no one knows for sure. We think the disease is caused by an aberrant protein called a prion, yet that is not totally confirmed at this time. It does have the same symptoms as some of the other prion diseases such as “mad cow” (BSE) and human forms (K-J and Kuru).

Recently, research in England appears to show a link between mad cow disease and use of organophosphate pesticides by English farmers. This link may even go back to testing of these compounds for chemical warfare by the Germans. This has not been proven, but illustrates how little we know about these diseases.

A battle has been raging around the country for some time now concerning intensive management of white-tailed deer. Many in the wildlife management profession view the increased interest in managing deer on private lands as a threat to the old order and to their power. Activities such as supplemental feeding, food plots and protecting young bucks have come increasingly under fire from irate biologists. It is a philosophical battle, with combatants using whatever means they can to support their positions. As a scientist, I view one side effect of this “war” as very unfortunate. I am deeply concerned about ethical issues coming to the forefront.

Scientists are supposed to be unbiased and ethical people. Yet most of us are children of the ’70’s who have a distinct environmentalism bias and believe in the old adage: “The end justifies the means.” We are seeing too many scientists and state biologists reporting half-truths and even fabricated results to support a particular philosophical position. For example, are you aware of the case in which government scientists planted lynx hairs in an area they wanted to protect from development? Even though they were discredited, they are still on the job.

Now we are seeing the same thing with CWD. The philosophical difference, as I noted earlier, is whether or not private citizens should be able to own and manage deer on their property. State agencies and the establishment in the wildlife profession are logically opposed to this. Recently, the Wildlife Management Institute published a cartoon booklet (Supplemental Feeding, Just Say No!) ridiculing private landowners who supplementally feed deer. Landowners who feed their deer are shown in cartoons as drug dealers and felons. That’s pretty serious stuff from an organization of scientists!

This is not the first disease issue we have faced with deer. Tuberculosis (TB) appeared in the ’70’s in Michigan, but news of the disease was suppressed until the early ’90’s when the infection rate became so high it could not be ignored any longer. The cry went out around the wildlife community that fenced deer had brought TB into Michigan. State DNR’s pointed to the Michigan problem as evidence that fencing deer was evil.

I live by a law developed by a colleague many years ago: “Many a beautiful theory has been murdered by a ruthless gang of facts!” After the smoke cleared, it turns out virtually every fenced deer in Michigan was tested (more than 20,000), with not a single deer having the disease. The one herd reported in the late 1990’s was shown to have contracted TB from wild deer, either fenced in on the ranch or by nose to nose contact through the fence.

Today, the only place in Michigan where you can be assured of killing a deer without TB is inside a fence: a sad state of affairs in my book. Where had the Michigan deer contracted TB? From untested cattle brought into the state many years ago from Mexico. It’s not called bovine tuberculosis for nothing!

Now we are dealing with CWD, an even more deadly disease, the source of which is unclear. If we take Colorado authorities at their word, it may have been in the wild all along. As with TB and CWD, we never tested this thoroughly for a disease in the wild. Have they been there all along? Are we just now finding them due to intensive testing? Are there other diseases such as Johne’s disease out there?

One thing is for sure. Each time a disease shows up, the finger gets pointed at fenced operations. Coincidentally, testing is usually intense only around existing fenced properties, and seldom takes place according to a random sampling scheme – something any scientist worth his salt would do. Another law I live by is: “If I hadn’t believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it with my own eyes!” How you sample for a disease can impact your conclusions about its origin.

As the facts come in, we are learning more about the situations involved. In the celebrated case of fenced elk in Nebraska, it turns out that wild deer fenced in with the elk may have been the source for the disease. Elk are notorious magnets for diseases and they could have easily picked it up from the trapped deer. In Wisconsin, the five cases reported there may have come from contaminated animal feed products, but this remains conjecture at this time. So, you see these are complex issues that require cooler heads.

These concerns take away from the real issues facing deer and wildlife management. Several years back, Dr. Harry Jacobson and I presented a paper in Scotland at the World Deer Congress that criticized the way deer are managed. The “hunter opportunity” model for deer management, in which the goal is to maximize harvest of antlered males has obviously failed. Agency biologists really get mad when we say this! Most states are still managing their deer on a restoration basis, not a management basis. Deer already are fully restored in this country! We are picking them out of the grills of Chevrolets! There are more deer here than when Columbus arrived!

Over-population leads to disease and we predicted in our presentation that diseases would soon appear. Now, several years later, bingo! We are not doing a good job of managing our deer herds. Fencing and privatization provide great “strawmen” to draw attention away from the real issues. The 64-thousand dollar question is: “How do we ensure there will always be places for us to hunt deer?” We are losing at least 2 million acres of deer habitat a year to development. Anything that gets landowners to protect and manage deer on their properties is a “win-win” in my book.

State agencies fear anything new because it has the potential to threaten their financial support and power base. Most agencies operate (thank goodness) on license sales, fees and fines. Pittman-Robertson and Dingle-Johnson funds help. Loss of hunters means loss of funds and power. Credible studies show we are losing hunters, not to loss of hunter opportunity, but to changing lifestyles.

When I was a kid, I could walk out my back door and go hunting. I could hunt as long as I wanted and no one stopped me. Today, our kids grow up in cities, and even so-called rural kids are urban in lifestyle. Leisure time in America is at an all time low, especially mid-term discretionary time (weekends) when most hunting takes place. In Texas, where we practice the evil and much dreaded hunting lease program, only about 17% of the deer habitat is leased. There is a lot of land to hunt, but no one has time any more and landowners don’t want anyone on their land.

Non-consumptive use is much worse. In the last five years, the Fish & Wildlife Service reports an 18% decline in non-consumptive uses such as backpacking, camping, bird watching, etc. So, intensive deer management and private ownership are not the problem.

What I fear in regard to the future of hunting is that, in their zeal to combat private deer management, some outdoor writers and state agency biologists will unwittingly kill our sport. The “baby will be thrown out with the bath water.” The hysteria and panic being stirred up by articles such as your 31 March piece are causing hunters to question whether or not they will even be in the field next year.

Already here at the Institute we are getting dozens of phone calls from frightened hunters who want to know if it is safe to hunt in Colorado or Wyoming this year! Last year’s hunters are getting letters warning them not to eat the venison in their freezers. What message does that send, in spite of the fact that no cross-species transmission can be demonstrated? One of the more prominent outdoor magazines published articles last year claiming that three men have died from CWD which is a total lie! I hereby predict a significant decline in deer hunters next fall as a consequence.

Are disease issues real? You bet they are! I do not want to minimize their importance, but we need to adopt a more reasonable approach. I support your state’s decision to halt importation of deer for a while so that things can be sorted out. But I cannot support any effort to use wildlife-vectored diseases as a weapon against private landowners who want to manage deer on their properties. I also think you should look at all deer importation, including carcasses. Stop and think about that little tidbit of information!

In my opinion, each state should institute two policies. First, they should begin managing deer on an ecological rather than a hunter opportunity basis. Second, they should develop a science-based disease monitoring program for their state. I would add that states need to begin working with landowners who want to manage deer, not against them.


Response by Dr. James C. Kroll, Director, Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research (Texas) to Andy Hansroth, Outdoor Writer, Sunday Gazette-Mail, regarding an article on Chronic Wasting Disease.