Wasting disease hype hurting hunting industry

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 5, 2002

While the West Nile Virus has dominated headlines, something else has been looming in the folds of newspapers: Chronic Wasting Disease. Last week, the first case of chronic wasting disease in Minnesota was found in a herd of farm-raised elk in Aitkin County, and the local hunting industry is already feeling the effects.

Local guns shops, meat processing companies, and deer hunting license retailers say the scare has already affected the deer-hunting season, before it even starts.

&uot;We’ve noticed a dramatic drop in sales,&uot; said Milan Hart, owner of Hart Brothers Weaponry. &uot;Last year at this time we’d sold 500 antlerless deer hunting licenses, this year we’ve only sold 70.&uot; The enormous drop in license sales is due to the attention devoted to the disease, according to Hart. &uot;It has been a lot of news-media hype,&uot; he said.

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Covered widely since it was discovered in Aitkin county last Friday, the case has been reported widely in the news media. Several cases in Wisconsin have also brought a proximity issue for Minnesota hunters.

The disease affects the brain and spine of its victims and causes deer, elk, moose, and caribou to grow thin and die. It is so far incurable. Signs of the disease in these animals include drooping head and ears, poor body condition, tremors, stumbling, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, and excessive thirst and urination.

The first case of Chronic Wasting Disease was reported in 1967. It originated in deer and elk farms in Wyoming and Colorado. Since then it has been spotted in New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin and, now, Minnesota.

The state Department of Natural Resources has decided to step up their testing for the disease. They have been testing for the past few years but this year they will be testing 5,000 deer and elk statewide as well as focusing more testing efforts in Aitkin County where the only case of the disease has been reported.

Locally, business has been slower for Hart and is expected to slow down for others as well if the trends in license applications continue.

&uot;Based on the way (Hart’s) license sales are going, we will probably see a slow down as well,&uot; said Todd Enderson, co-owner of Nick’s Meats and Groceries Inc. of Hayward, which that does venison processing.

The DNR as well as many business owners in the area think the threat has been overplayed without enough evidence.

&uot;Probably the biggest problem right now is the lack of information,&uot; said Enderson. &uot;Right now there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transferred to humans.&uot;

Enderson said Nick’s will continue to process deer that were killed in Minnesota, but has not yet decided whether or not it will take out-of-state carcasses.

Both Nick’s and Hart Brothers are planning on steps to advertise and inform the public on chronic wasting disease, hoping to ease the public’s fears.

&uot;I think our biggest threats come from the scare and misinformation,&uot; said Hart. He said if deer-hunting licensing keeps decreasing there could be big problems. &uot;We will have an increase in car accidents and the DNR will have a very hard time because they lean so heavily on deer license sales.&uot;

DNR spokesman Dennis Stauffer said that they are planning to step up testing across the state. &uot;We have to remind ourselves that even with a case in captivity, there is still no evidence that it is in the wild in Minnesota,&uot; he said. &uot;It is a very significant concern for us, but we need to keep in mind that this has yet to have a significant impact on our deer population and that there is no evidence that this disease is a threat to humans.&uot;