Wildlife officials, lawmakers fight deer-killing disease

By LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service

LANSING — As the  Department of Natural Resources (DNR) expands educational outreach about chronic wasting disease, a bipartisan bill to raise awareness and prevent spread of the disease is moving through the state House.

The bill would increase the fine for importing deer carcasses or parts into the state, from the current range of $50-$500 to a new range of $500-$2,000. The goals of the increased penalty are both to reduce the likelihood that chronic wasting disease will spread among Michigan deer and to raise awareness about the seriousness of the problem.

The bill unanimously passed the House Committee on Natural Resources in late April. Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, is the main sponsor, as well as the committee’s minority vice-chair.

Chronic wasting disease is a progressive, fatal disease that causes neurological damage in members of the deer family – in Michigan, the white-tailed deer. Although it has not been known to infect humans or animals other than cervids such as deer, elk and moose, it has no known cure and is highly infectious.

In 2008, the first white-tailed deer in the state tested positive for chronic wasting disease in Kent County. In 2015, seven more white-tailed deer in Clinton and Ingham counties were confirmed to have the disease, and two additional instances were confirmed in captive deer on a privately owned deer farm in Mecosta County in 2016.

Although these cases make up just a small percentage of Michigan’s deer population, the mere existence of the disease – and the increased prevalence of infected deer in just the past two years – is cause for alarm.

“The scope in the state is small, but once the disease is established in the environment it’s impossible to eradicate,” said Chad Stewart, a deer, elk and moose management specialist for the DNR.

Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, who serves as majority vice-chair on the House  committee, said he hopes the increased penalties would attract public attention to the dangers of chronic wasting disease.

“Those who are aware are very concerned,” LaFave said, but “the majority of hunters are not aware of the problem.”

The deer population in the Upper Peninsula is historically low, making the northern part of the state especially vulnerable in case the disease spreads.

“If we did get chronic wasting disease in the Upper Peninsula, we would survive, but it would be a devastating problem and it would never go away,” LaFave said. “I think it would be devastating to the economy in the Upper Peninsula and the rest of the state.”

LaFave said plenty of hunters regularly come to the U.P. from Wisconsin, where chronic wasting disease is prevalent, to get their animals stuffed by a taxidermist.

“It’s cheaper to get animals taxidermied in the Upper Peninsula, as opposed to out West and other places,” LaFave said. Because of this, he said the current fine for possessing deer killed in another state is not enough to deter hunters from doing it.

“They don’t realize the risk,” LaFave said. “We’ve got to keep discussing this issue and reminding hunters that if they plan their trips, a lot of areas have chronic wasting disease,” and hunters could unknowingly bring that back to Michigan.

The disease is caused by an abnormally shaped protein, called a “prion,” that can enter the body through ingestion via the mouth or nose. DNR’s Stewart said these prions accumulate in the animal’s central nervous system and mutate the body’s normally occurring prion proteins, ultimately boring holes in the brain that will kill the animal.

On average, Stewart said, a diseased animal will usually live no more than one or two years after becoming infected, although more resistant animals can live longer.

“Animals that are infected with the disease don’t show symptoms until the very end, right before they die from it,” Stewart said. “Before that, they’re living a generally healthy life – they’re doing everything a normal deer does, but they’re infectious and still shedding prions into environment.

“With deer being social animals, the potential for it to spread rapidly before it can be identified is a significant concern.”

John Niewoonder, a DNR wildlife biologist, serves the counties of Montcalm and Ionia from the Flat River State Game Area field office. He has been closely involved with deer surveillance and testing in the Mecosta County area.

Since the disease was first identified in captive mule deer in Colorado in the early 1960s, it has spread to more than 23 states and Canadian provinces, said Niewoonder, with many western states having higher prevalence rates and seeing their deer populations decline as a result.

“There is a huge concern that it will keep spreading in Michigan,” Niewoonder said.

The DNR will test any deer reported to be acting abnormally for the disease, but for now Niewoonder said the department is focusing on the 17-township area where the nine infected deer came from.

“We don’t have the resources to test all over the state,” Niewoonder said.

Most of the samples the DNR receives for testing come from hunters, and some come from road kill.

“We want hunters to know that this is very serious issue, and the future of deer populations depends on us getting handle on this disease,” Niewoonder said. “We need their help.”

Niewoonder said the DNR has been doing educational outreach and holding public meetings to inform Michiganders about the dangers of chronic wasting disease and how they can help prevent its spread. One public meeting, he said, drew about 50 people.

The DNR will have “deer check stations” set up at field offices and additional areas of focus during hunting season, which runs Oct. 1 through December. Niewoonder said hunters should participate by bringing in their harvested deer to the stations.

In the nine-township CWD surveillance area that includes Mecosta, it will be mandatory for hunters to get their deer tested at the stations starting this fall.

If the department can test 2,800 of those deer without detecting the disease, Niewoonder said, it can be determined that there is no CWD in that area.

A previous version of Kivela’s bill was introduced last session and made it through the House, but failed to pass in the Senate.

LaFave said he believes the current version has a “very good chance” of making it through the Senate and has not heard of any opposition to the bill.