Action should be taken now to counter outbreak of chronic wasting disease

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If we had a chance to help a human or an animal, why wouldn’t we do it? If we knew that the situation could easily get worse — in some cases, far worse — why wouldn’t we do what we could now instead of waiting? These thoughts occurred to me as I read an article in a recent issue of the Portland Press Herald headlined “Warning about chronic wasting disease stokes fears of hunting.”

What caught my attention was the following quote by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries deer biologist, who said his “greatest fear about chronic wasting disease is the toll it could take on hunting — particularly given the state’s recent efforts to recruit more hunters.” For the record, chronic wasting disease is readily spread from deer to deer and eventually kills every infected animal. There is no treatment, no vaccine, no cure. This incredibly devastating disease now occurs in 25 states and four Canadian provinces, most recently in Quebec, less than 100 miles from the Vermont border.

I would have thought that the DIFW biologist’s primary concern would have been the suffering and death of the animals who might contract CWD. Instead his focus — as a paid employee of a public agency whose revenue is derived in large part from the sale of hunting licenses — is on the possible decrease in hunters and, by implication, the fees they pay DIFW for the privilege. The article also quotes the biologist as saying “To make sure hunting license sales at least stay at current levels, DIFW recently hired a full-time officer charged with recruiting more hunters in Maine — a step taken for the first time.” Again, one would think that the money spent on ‘recruiting’ new hunters would be better directed toward researching and preventing CWD with the hope of, one day, finding a cure.

What is being done in the meanwhile?

Of course, there is no way to stop deer from crossing into Maine from Canada on their own, but there is a ban in effect against transporting carcasses into the state, though the MDIFW biologist offers no guarantees that will be effective. Other precautions hold more promise; one is by stopping the use of deer lures or scents. Because the disease can be introduced into the soil and lay dormant for years before infecting a deer herd, it is essential that lures or scents are no longer available in Maine. Seven states, in fact, including Vermont and four Canadian provinces, ban the use of deer scent lures, while several others recommend not using them.

Another concern is that the feeding of deer who might have been exposed to CWD can be as dangerous as a person with a highly contagious disease who exposes a group of his fellow humans to a health risk that is invariably fatal. DIFW on its website has recently urged hunters not to feed deer or use deer lures or scents. The possibility of a deadly disease combined with its potential spread by contact with food or lures can produce a lethal result. A DIFW spokesman has said the department has started the process of rule-making to ban both practices, but neither will be an emergency rule.

Why not, one asks? Wouldn’t it be more effective to deal with this problem before it becomes an emergency? DIFW’s commissioner writes that “Chronic wasting disease is the most serious threat facing our deer and moose populations in modern times” and could “ravage Maine’s hunting and wildlife economy.” Note that, once again, the focus is on the possible financial consequences and not to the animals themselves — a curious reversal of priorities for an agency whose mission statement begins by stating that it “protects and manages Maine’s fish and wildlife and their habitats.”

Preventing the feeding of deer may be unenforceable; and simply recommending that deer scent lures not be used is a step that doesn’t go nearly far enough. Voluntary compliance to control this potential hazard to the state’s wildlife is not enough. It needs nothing less than the force of law.

To quote from the department’s own newsletter “Without action by hunters and state and provincial fish and wildlife agencies, CWD will continue to spread. Left unchecked, CWD will do irreparable harm to deer herds throughout New England, including Maine.”

Let’s take that action — and with the deer firearms season already underway plus a 28 percent increase in any deer permits — let’s take it now.

Don Loprieno is a published author from Bristol who has maintained a life-long interest in history and education. He has served on the boards of the Maine Friends of Animals and the Boothbay Region Humane Society and is a long-term supporter of the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston and the Humane Society of Knox County in Thomaston.

Don Loprieno

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