Disease raises concerns about deer farms in Iowa

Most cases found so far in state tied to confined animals

Chronic wasting disease, as the name implies, results in the loss of body mass, as well as the loss of bodily functions
Chronic wasting disease, as the name implies, results in the loss of body mass, as well as the loss of bodily functions and of the animal's instictive fear of humans. It always ends n the loss of the animal's life. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Iowa’s first seven cases of chronic wasting disease — all directly related to confined whitetail deer — have put a bull’s eye on the backs of the state’s deer breeders and the pay-to-shoot facilities they supply.

Critics of penned deer operations — mainly hunters and game managers — say captive deer are more likely than wild deer to spread the always fatal brain disease and that killing penned deer violates the “fair chase” premise that underlies ethical hunting.

“I’ve been crucified and demonized,” said Tom Brakke, a deer breeder and hunting preserve proprietor whose deer have been implicated in five of the state’s seven positive CWD tests.

Tim Powers, field director for the Iowa chapter of Whitetails Unlimited, said many Iowa deer hunters fear that wild deer will soon be infected and resent the role of game farms in the spread of the disease.

Confined deer operations are the “Typhoid Mary of the ungulates,” said Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Like many other Iowa hunters, Dearden said he thinks the shooting preserves, where people pay to shoot deer in an enclosure, are more trouble and expense than they are worth.

“I don’t understand how people who shoot confined deer would call themselves hunters,” said Dearden, who observed that opposition to hunting penned animals is “probably the only issue that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and I agree on.”

Iowa recorded its first CWD case in July at the Pine Ridge Hunting Lodge near Bloomfield in Davis County.

The Department of Natural Resources, which regulates hunting preserves, and the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which regulates breeding facilities, have since confirmed six more positive tests — all but two related to the Davis County hunting preserve and to a Cerro Gordo County deer breeding facility, both owned by Tom and Rhonda Brakke of Clear Lake.

The Clear Lake facility has recorded a positive test, as have three deer raised at that facility and shipped to a combination shooting and breeding facility in Pottawattamie County, according to State Veterinarian David Schmitt.

The other two positive tests at the Pottawattamie facility involved a deer acquired from another Iowa breeder and a deer that was a natural addition to the herd, Schmitt said.

Tom Brakke said no deer have entered his breeding facility in the past 10 years and that his herd — about 500 deer at Clear Lake and more than 150 at the Bloomfield preserve — have been enrolled for the past nine years in a CWD monitoring program under which every deer that dies or is killed is tested for the disease. (story continues below map)

“Nothing comes in 10 years. Every deer that died in the past nine years has been tested. The incubation period for CWD is 48 months. How did I get CWD? That’s what I want to know,” said Brakke, who sees his investment of 20 years and $2.5 million rapidly disappearing.

While hunters worry that Brakke’s deer have already infected or will soon infect wild Iowa deer, it is “most definitely” possible that his deer could have been infected by wild Iowa deer, Brakke said.

Whitetail expert Willie Suchy, leader of the DNR’s wildlife research unit, said CWD is “more likely to show up among captive animals” because they are often moved from one facility to another, increasing their exposure.

Bryan Richards, a disease investigator for the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., said captive and wild deer are equally susceptible to CWD.

Nevertheless, he said, disease outbreaks accelerate in a captive environment.

“You are forcing contact in a pen. A sick animal will soon have contact with every animal in the pen,” he said.

Richards said “there is ample evidence right there in Iowa that CWD moves through game farm enclosures.”

Both Suchy and Richards said managing deer in the CWD era would be greatly simplified and rendered more effective if there were an economical diagnostic test. Today’s standard test is performed post-mortem on brain cells, which can be extracted only from dead animals.

That penned deer are more susceptible than wild deer to chronic wasting disease is a “common misconception,” according to Wayne Johnson of Farley, a member of the Iowa Whitetail Deer Association board of directors.

With CWD confirmed in all of Iowa’s neighboring states, “it was bound to show up in Iowa,” he said.

One reason the disease showed up first among confined deer is that all confined deer in Iowa over the age of 1 are tested for CWD when they die, which compares with a small percent of the wild deer herd, about 1 percent in any given year, according to Iowa Whitetail Deer Association spokesman Scott Kent, who is raising about 250 whitetails on a combined hunting and breeding facility near Osceola.

Johnson, who keeps 13 deer in a 2-acre pen, said he raises whitetails for both fun and profit.

The few that he sells each year go to hunting preserves and bring anywhere from $500 to $5,000 each, depending on the size of their antlers, Johnson said.

Pine Ridge Lodge’s 2011 price list includes whitetail bucks from $3,500 for antlers in the 160 to 169-inch range all the way up to $30,000 for monster bucks with antlers measuring more than 300 inches.

Another common misconception, according to both Brakke and Johnson, is that deer within hunting preserves are easy to shoot.

“They are still a wild animal, and they have a lot of room to run and hide” within a 320-acre enclosure, the minimum size allowed under Iowa law, Johnson said.

“I love to hunt myself, and if it wasn’t a real hunt I wouldn’t do it,” Brakke said.

DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins confirmed that the state’s first CWD-positive deer was shot just two hours after it stepped off the truck, which would not have given the animal much time to acclimate to its new surroundings.

Randy Taylor, chairman of the legislative committee of the Iowa Bowhunters Association, said the organization is concerned that commercial deer operations are threatening the health of Iowa’s wild deer. “We will recommend that the Legislature pass stricter rules governing the operation of deer breeding and shooting facilities,” Taylor said.

Dearden said he is “really looking at” revisiting state rules governing commercial deer operations in the upcoming session of the Legislature.

Although Department of Agriculture and the DNR appear to be working well together, the split jurisdiction is an area of concern, Dearden said.Brakke’s 330-acre hunting preserve will be depopulated under an agreement with the DNR. The agreement allows Brakke to honor commitments for hunts previously scheduled between Sept. 8 and Dec. 25, said Dale Garner, chief of the DNR’s Wildlife Bureau. Any deer killed during those hunts will be tested for CWD and any remaining after those hunts will be killed and tested for the fatal brain disease, Garner said.

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