Chronic wasting disease (CWD) detected in white-tailed deer bred at a Texas facility recently prompted state agency officials to adopt rules restricting the movement and release of breeder deer. While some say the rules adopted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) are reasonable and necessary to contain the disease and identify cases, others say the rules are an overreaction and unfairly target the state’s deer breeding industry.
Under Parks and Wildlife Code, ch. 43, subch. L, deer breeder permits allow a qualified person to possess and breed certain live deer in captivity and to sell and transfer them for certain purposes. Other permits allow certain deer to be retained and transported for wildlife management purposes.
The House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism held public hearings on CWD in July and September. Interim rules adopted by the department under Parks and Wildlife Code, ch. 43 and 61 apply through the 2015-16 hunting season and are set to expire next August.
Chronic wasting disease. A deer infected with CWD, a fatal neurodegenerative condition, may take up to five years to show symptoms, including weight and appetite loss and behavioral changes. The disease can be spread by animal-to-animal contact through agents called prions or by an animal’s contact with a contaminated environment. There is no evidence that the disease is transmissible to humans, according to a TPWD fact sheet.
Wild and other captive deer are at risk for the disease because of the release of captive deer into the wild and sales and transfers among breeders. In Texas, at least five white-tailed breeder deer have tested positive for CWD. Determining whether an animal is infected typically involves a postmortem test.
Chronic wasting disease first was recognized in Colorado in 1967 and has since been found in several other states, including New York, Minnesota, and Wyoming. Attempts to manage it have included increased surveillance, intensive culling, restricting or reducing deer movement, and education and outreach efforts. In Texas, where the disease was first detected in 2012 in free-ranging mule deer, surveillance has been conducted since 2002.
State response to chronic wasting disease. When CWD was detected this summer, state officials implemented a temporary moratorium on movement of breeder deer and launched an epidemiological investigation led by the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC). TPWD and TAHC developed a plan to manage the disease, finalized Aug. 11 and included in emergency rules. Parks and Wildlife Code, sec. 12.027 allows the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission or the executive director of the department to adopt emergency rules if there is an immediate danger to a species regulated by the department.
The emergency rules included options for certain breeders to move and liberate deer, enhanced movement and liberation options for closely monitored herds, further testing in breeder facilities, and testing requirements for a proportion of deer harvested on some release sites. Emergency rules were replaced in November with similar interim rules. The emergency and interim rules amend 31 Texas Administrative Code, part 2, ch. 65. TPWD also is encouraging hunters to voluntarily submit samples to be tested for CWD.
Ownership of breeder deer. One issue that has been raised in the state’s response to CWD is the ownership of breeder deer. Parks and Wildlife Code, sec. 1.011 establishes that all wild animals inside the borders of Texas are property of the people of the state. In 2011, the 82nd Legislature considered HB 3775 by Guillen, which would have established that deer purchased by a breeder or born in a facility were the personal property of the breeder until released into the wild. The bill died in committee.
Supporters of the rules to address chronic wasting disease say they are needed to protect wild deer and the state’s multibillion-dollar hunting, ranching, and wildlife management industries. The rules were shaped by stakeholders and are an effort to balance the risk of the disease with business continuity for deer breeders, supporters say, and the response has been guided by science, caution, and economic concerns. While relying solely on live-animal testing would be ideal, the infrastructure to do so must be established first, they say.
Supporters say permits for captive deer breeding specify that breeders may possess deer, not own them. It is well settled, they say, that wildlife resources are managed by the state for the people under the public trust doctrine, a model that has facilitated effective wildlife management.
Opponents of the rules to address chronic wasting disease say the deer-breeding industry is committed to containing the spread of CWD but that the rules are an overreach and overreaction to a few cases of the disease. Some say the rules were developed with little input from the public or industry and that they unfairly target the state’s breeder deer, even though most deer in Texas are wild. No deer in Texas are known to have died from the disease, but many have been slaughtered for testing. Live testing of animals for CWD should be implemented, as killing deer to be tested has both economic and emotional implications, opponents say.
Some opponents also say the rules inappropriately treat captive deer like wild deer. They say captive deer should be considered personal property, rather than property of the state, until released into the wild.
by Mary Beth Schaefer