JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Dept. of Conservation will test 6,000 deer for chronic wasting disease (CWD) during this fall's hunt in response to outbreaks of the disease in southern Wisconsin and several western states. Last year the state tested 72 sick deer reported by hunters and the public. None tested positive.
The DOC will be testing tissue samples from 200 deer in each of 30 randomly selected counties across Missouri. The agency is asking hunters to voluntarily assist them in their efforts by bringing harvested deer to drop points.
CWD is related to mad cow disease, which has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal illness which has killed 125 people, mostly in Britain. CWD itself has not been proven to cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
Despite this, the disease has caused many Wisconsin hunters to stay at home this year. That state's Department of Natural Resources reported a 34 percent drop in the number of bow hunting licenses sold when its bow season began Sept. 12. This after 24 deer killed in southern Wisconsin this year tested positive for the disease.
Missouri's bow hunting season begins Oct. 1, and the Conservation Dept. says it's too early to tell whether there will be a drop in the number of bow hunters.
"We don't anticipate fewer people hunting deer this year," said Bob Ziehmer, a spokesman for the DOC.
But others aren't so sure. Tim Schwennesen of Tune's Locker Plant, a Centralia meat processor, said he thinks the state's hunters are concerned about CWD. He expects CWD will cause a decline in his business, even though there has yet to be a positive test in Missouri.
"In the past we've always done about 1,000 deer, and I'm not counting on that much this year," Schwennesen said. "I think we'll probably be down to 800 or 700."
"Your avid deer hunters are going to be out there," Schwennesen said. "Your Johnny that goes out once a year for gun season, he may kick back and say 'well this chronic waste is out there...I'm not sure about it.'"
Jason Jennings of Jennings Premium Meats in New Franklin disagrees. He said he hasn't seen much evidence of anxiety.
"We've had a couple people ask us about it," he said. "Right now I'm not expecting it to cut into our business."
Butch Herold, president of Missouri Bow Hunter's Association doesn't think CWD will keep Missourians out of the woods this year.
"I don't see that happening," he said. "Ninety percent of the people that hunt in Missouri probably don't even know what it is...at the present time, I don't think there's a problem."
But Herold, who also owns a sporting goods store, said that if it spreads south from Wisconsin into Illinois or Iowa, it will hurt a lot of businesses, including his own.
Jeff Berringer, a wildlife biologist for the DOC, said each test costs the state roughly $20. This year's testing is part of a three year program to monitor Missouri's whitetail herd.
Scientists are not certain how CWD spreads, but the prevailing theory is that the disease is carried by altered proteins called prions in the animal's nervous system.
Originally documented in Colorado in 1967, it has since spread to twelve states and Canadian provinces. In addition to whitetail deer, it has been found in both wild and captive mule deer and elk.
David Hopson, a veterinarian with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, advises hunters to take precautions.
"Even though it hasn't been linked to any human disease, it might be a good idea to wear gloves when cleaning the deer," he said. Hopson advises that hunters steer clear of nervous tissue and lymph nodes, which harbor prions, and recommends they dispose of carcasses in a proper facility.
"I'll probably be deer hunting this year," he said. "I won't say that [CWD] is impossible to get, but I'll say the risk is pretty minimal."