A Plague On The Plains

On a frozen morning in hilly rural Wisconsin, the dead deer lay stacked in a pile, like so much garbage. Big and brawny, these whitetail bucks and does should be prizes. But the hunters who shot them were afraid to take them home. A mysterious sickness called chronic wasting disease, closely linked to the mad-cow illness that terrorized England, has been cropping up in elk and deer in the Rockies and the upper Midwest. There have been no documented cases of humans' contracting the deadly brain disease, and health officials are not warning people to stop eating venison. But because of the way mad cow made its leap from cattle to humans--despite earlier reassurances that it couldn't happen--government scientists are testing for danger. At this point, says Richard Race of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, "we know hardly anything."

In places like Wisconsin, where hunting is a $1 billion industry, fears about the disease have sparked radical measures. State hunting officials have declared a kill-them-all policy in one region where CWD has been found. In this "eradication zone," hunters traditionally limited to taking a single deer can now shoot 100 or more. The hunting season usually lasts nine days, but in the eradication zone, hunting started in June and will run through the end of January. Hunters like Mark Peck say this has turned sport into slaughter. "Deer have always been considered sacred around here," says Peck, a 42-year-old farmer. "Now they've been relegated to rat status."

The mysterious illness has also cast a nationwide pall on hunting, a sport that has already seen its ranks dwindle. The number of outdoorsmen in America fell by 7 percent in the '90s, according to a new federal study. "It's a change in the culture," says George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "Old hunters are dying and young people aren't taking it up. And now this comes along--and people see it as just another reason not to go hunting." CWD has scared off outdoorsmen like Marlyn Redel, 74, who has been hunting since he was 12. "I didn't even go out this year," says Redel. "Nobody knows how widespread this is. And my wife told me, 'You're not bringing it into the house'."

The disease, marked by emaciation and uncontrollable drooling in elk and deer, has been around for decades. It was initially spotted in captive deer in Colorado in 1967, and first appeared in a wild elk in 1981. In the disease, brain proteins change shape and begin killing cells, but it's not known why that happens. Through most of the 1980s and 1990s, the disease seemed limited to the High Plains. Then in the late 1990s, it turned up in game ranches in Colorado and Montana. But the real alarm came earlier this year, when the disease jumped the Mississippi. So far this year, scores of cases have been detected in Wisconsin. The first case of a diseased deer was documented in Illinois in November.

Officials in some states, including Wisconsin, are sawing off the heads of killed deer and sending them to a laboratory for testing. They advise hunters to freeze meat until tests determine if their deer was infected. Infected carcasses will be incinerated, while those without the disease will be buried in a landfill. The bodies of dead deer unwanted by hunters--about half of those killed in the eradication zone were left behind--will be kept in cold storage until the results of the tests, which will take three to six months. They will then be buried or burned, depending on the findings.

In the meantime, Wisconsin officials are telling hunters to take precautions, said Laurel Steffes of the state Department of Natural Resources. Hunters are being urged not to saw through bones of the deer when they butcher them. They're also told not to eat certain deer parts, such as the brain, tonsils and eyeballs. Wisconsin has an overpopulation of deer, a problem that resulted in some 47,000 car-deer accidents last year. "The deer simply doesn't have many predators anymore," says Steffes.

A national sportsman's group, Whitetails Unlimited, has posted billboards in Wisconsin urging hunters to kill deer in the eradication zone. "There's nothing like this in the history of deer management," says Peter J. Gerl, the group's executive director. He fears that, left untended, the disease could wipe out the state's deer population. "Eradication of this herd is a very small price to pay to stop this disease." But landowners have fought the campaign. David Mandell, a lawyer for Citizens Against Deer Slaughter, says residents fear their property values will drop if all deer are eliminated. "Some people bought this land specifically to go hunting," he says.

Peck, who hunts with his 12-year-old son Garrett, has resisted the state's call to kill. He will not shoot more deer than his family can eat. "That just rubs wrong against the hunting ethic," he says. As he trudged through the red-oak woods with his son one recent morning, Peck spotted a deer, standing still as a painting, and took aim, firing a single shot that cracked the early-morning silence. With his own rifle, Garrett shot an eight-point buck, a deer that hobbled a few yards, dripping a trail of blood, before collapsing. Father and son walked over to their kills, then knelt to inspect the dead animals for signs of sickness. "Looks pretty fat and sassy," Peck said. "There's nothing wrong with that deer."

Peck believes any chance of contracting the disease is "smaller than a lot of risks I take in my life," like driving his truck. But even in the Peck home, questions arise. Peck's 11-year-old son Nathan, who is more drawn to basketball and Nintendo than hunting, looked at a plate of venison sausage at dinner one night, and asked: "Can we be sure this doesn't have CWD?" Peck answered, "You don't have to eat it if you don't want to." Nathan gobbled it up.

Early next year the Rocky Mountain Laboratories will begin testing monkeys to see if CWD can be passed by eating. If the disease never materializes, the monkeys won't be the only lucky ones. The primates are stand-ins for people. Although the results of the study won't be definitive, the findings will be an important milestone on the road to understanding the disease. Researchers say it will be many years before science can nail down the question of human susceptibility, and incubation periods could be 10 to 15 years. Venison eaters are going to have to live with uncertainty for a long time.