Maine’s deer biologist, Nathan Bieber, 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.

And some hunters agree they would be wary if the disease spreads to Maine, even though there have been no reported cases of CWD being passed from animals to humans.

Last week, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife enacted emergency measures to protect the state’s deer and moose herds after CWD was detected at a deer farm in Quebec in September. The measures place strict restrictions on the transport of deer and moose carcasses into Maine from Canada and all states except New Hampshire, which, like Maine, has yet to be affected by the disease.

CWD is a prion disease that causes irreversible damage to brain tissue in deer, moose, reindeer and elk. There are no treatments or vaccines. It can be spread by an animal’s bodily fluids and can seep into the soil and remain there for several decades.

There have been no reported cases of CWD infections in humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the World Health Organization recommends “that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain,” according to the CDC website.

 

A white-tailed deer is startled by the presence of a human being while munching on bird seed in a backyard in Allagash in 2016. Worries about chronic wasting disease come at time when Maine’s any-deer permits have risen to historic levels because of a failure to harvest enough does. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

Worries about chronic wasting disease come at time when Maine’s any-deer permits have risen to historic levels because of a failure to harvest enough does. The state has issued 84,745 any-deer permits for this fall’s hunt, an increase of 28 percent from last year and the highest total since Maine launched its permit system in 1986. The firearms season for all deer hunters begins Oct. 29 and ends Nov. 24.

To make sure hunting license sales at least stay at current levels, Bieber said DIF&W recently hired a full-time officer charged with recruiting more hunters in Maine – a step taken for the first time. The state has about 170,000 licensed hunters.

Some of them said they would be wary of hunting deer if CWD spreads to Maine.

Dennis Crowell with the Skowhegan Fish and Game Club said he would stop hunting deer.

“What worries me first of all is there is no way to cure (CWD in deer),” said Crowell, 74. “There will be people that will think it’s too risky. There could be a deer that doesn’t show outward signs and you shoot it and bring it home to feed your family. There are hunters who will not take the risk.”

Presque Isle Fish and Game Club President Nick Archer said he will not stop hunting deer, but he could see others stopping if CWD is found in Maine.

“I guess if you’re talking about feeding it to my family, I would not throw caution to the wind,” Archer said. “I would not eat it. But I would not stop hunting. I’m a hard-core hunter. But maybe the casual hunters would stop.”

Archer said of the 300 members of his club, about 70 percent are casual hunters.

And Scott Bartlett with the Standish Fish and Game Club said it depends what future research shows.

“A lot of people out there hunt for the meat,” said Bartlett, a hunter for 40 years. “If it’s proven that you can’t eat the meat, that could have an effect.”

DIF&W says there are 230,000 to 250,000 deer and 50,000 to 70,000 moose statewide. Maine has been testing hunter-killed deer for CWD since 1999. In recent years, 450 to 500 deer have been tested, along with about 15 moose, Bieber said.

Bieber said the ban on transporting carcasses into the state holds no guarantees. So state biologists are moving forward to ban feeding deer and using deer-urine scents or lures.

DIF&W spokesman Mark Latti said the department has started the process of rule-making to ban both practices, but neither will be an emergency rule.

Seven states, including Vermont, and four Canadian provinces ban the use of deer scent lures, while several others recommend not using them.

CWD was first found in deer and elk in the West – in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska – in the 1960s. It has been detected in 25 states and three Canadian provinces. The greatest concentration of CWD remains in Colorado and Wyoming, as well as in the Canadian provinces of Albert and Saskatchewan, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The nearest state to Maine with CWD is Pennsylvania, where it was first detected in 2012. Since then, the number of deer testing positive for the disease has increased. Seventy-five deer tested positive last year, according to Travis Lau, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Pennsylvania offers free testing of deer that come out of the infected wildlife management area. Hunters can drop the head of a deer in bins where biologists collect and test them for CWD.

“Generally they recommend not to eat the meat of an infected deer,” Lau said. “We do recommend they get tested.”

Pennsylvania has seen a 6 percent decline in resident hunting license sales – from 945,892 in 2006 to 885,569 in 2017.

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