The past week was a ''bad news, good news'' one on the Missouri outdoors scene.
The bad news was truly bad. Agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made an indemnification offer to Rob Brasher, who is the owner of Heartland Wildlife Ranches in Ethel, Mo., to cover the costs of destroying the remainder of the whitetail deer and red elk now inhabiting the high-fenced pasture where last fall a single CWD-positive whitetail buck was found. Heartland Wildlife Ranch is located in Linn County in the heart of Missouri's big buck country. The ranch is not double fenced since Missouri law does not require it, so wild whitetails can easily contact animals inside, some of which may now be infected with CWD.
According to Tim Ripperger of the Missouri Department of Conservation, Brasher turned down the USDA's indemnification offer. Sources have stated off the record that officials with the USDA are planning to make further adjustments to the offer in hopes that the next amount will be more acceptable.
The CWD-infected whitetail, an animal which had spent its entire life at Heartland Wildlife Ranches, died last fall. The pasture inhabited by the buck prior to its death is near Buckland, Mo. No red flags, supposedly, were waved at the time of the buck's death but when its tissue was later tested as part of the state's voluntary CWD surveillance program — believe it or not only a small percentage of deer and elk who die or are killed in any Missouri high-fenced area are tested for CWD — it was determined that the buck had CWD. For how long was anybody's guess.
The CWD-infected whitetail had been living in the 800-acre, high-fenced pasture together with about 50 other whitetail deer and about 150 red elk. Since CWD is an infectious disease of cervids — whitetails, mule deer, elk and moose — it is very likely that other animals have already been exposed to the infectious prions. Scientists believe CWD is transmitted through urine and feces and possibly other bodily fluids such as saliva.
The buck died in the fall. Soon afterward the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA), which has jurisdiction over high-fenced shooting operations like Heartland's, ordered the removal and testing of 50 additional animals from the pasture in which the infected buck had been living and 20 animals from another of Heartland's pastures. All tested negative for CWD.
In mid-March employees of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), together with a team of sharpshooters and landowners, culled 150 wild whitetails within a 5-mile radius of Heartland. Tissue from those 150 deer, three additional road-killed deer and 72 deer which had been shot during the 2009 hunting season was also tested. All tested negative for CWD.
The hunting of wild deer in Missouri pumps almost $1 billion into the state's economy each year. A statistician with the USDA told this reporter that the agency doesn't even track the amount of money brought into the state by high-fenced shooting ranches, that the amount is so small as to be 'statistically irrelevant." Like most of those interviewed during the past five months about CWD and its implications this person did not want to go on record.
Anyone who enjoys hunting wild deer should be very, very worried. Each day that passes with no resolution of the herd situation in Linn County is another day when CWD could be transmitted from the penned animals to the free-ranging whitetails outside the fence.
Jason Sumners, of MDC, will be investigating ways in which the agency might be able to do something legally about the matter. But since the regulation of confined whitetail deer was removed some years ago from MDC's authority, the agency's options are limited. Hunters should ask their legislators why the regulation of any whitetail deer, even those which have been raised domestically for the sole purpose of being killed by a shooter in a high-fenced area, has been turned over to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, an entity with no interest in the state's truly wild animals.
Hunters and anyone else who enjoys watching or photographing whitetail deer should also let officials with the USDA and the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) know that doing nothing to solve the problem of the possibly CWD-infected herd in Linn County is totally unacceptable.
According to a source who requested anonymity, this is the first time any owner of a CWD-infected herd has been offered indemnification by the USDA and then declined it. In every other instance indemnification has been accepted and the herd destroyed to prevent infection of wild cervids.
The only exceptions have occurred when CWD was identified in a confined herd within a CWD-endemic area, such as northeastern Colorado.
The longer the situation is allowed to drag on the more likely that CWD will leak into Missouri's wild herd of whitetails.
Elk in Missouri?
The good news for many people these days is the very real probability that wild elk will soon be roaming the hills and hollows near Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties.
At a recent Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Commission meeting biologist Lonnie Hansen presented a report on an elk-restoration feasibility study. The study was originally conducted in 2000 but had been suspended due to worries about chronic wasting disease and adequate habitat.
Continuing inquiries from citizens interested in seeing elk in Missouri as well as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have led the Commission to reconsider the topic.
A report on elk restoration will be presented by MDC staff members at the October 2010 Commission meeting. If all goes well, the first elk to roam wild and free in Missouri in many years may not be far behind.