Whitetail deer grazing.  (File photo.)

Texas officials take huge risks to battle devastating deer disease

In the spring of 2021, Texas wildlife officials had some bad news for cattle ranches: Three captive deer on ranches near Uwald County were tested for a deadly neurodegenerative disease called chronic wasting disease (CWD). . Ox Ranch Genetics, the breeding company behind one of the country’s most high-profile exotic wildlife ranches, purchased four whitetails from a contaminated site several years ago.

Most wildlife biologists consider the highly contagious disease the greatest threat to America’s wild deer — a family of animals that includes deer, elk, moose and caribou. Even a single case of CWD in a deer breeding ground is often a death sentence for both the deer and the business. After killing and testing all captive deer at CWD-positive sites, the state requires owners to bury, incinerate or chemically ingest captive topsoil, mostly at the breeder’s expense. Texas generally bans deer in CWD-positive sites for five years.

Whitetail deer grazing. (File photo.)

Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

That’s exactly what happened at the site owned by Fred Gonzalez, who unknowingly sold his exposed deer to Ox Ranch Genetics and at least two other breeders – leading to an outbreak in Texas since the The disease is the most widespread outbreak since the disease first appeared in wild mule deer along the western route. 2012 border. After a state-ordered euthanasia in the middle of the night, Texas Parks and Wildlife extracted lymph nodes from hundreds of deer kept by Gonzalez. About 100 of them tested positive for CWD.

But things are different on cattle ranches. In a previously unreported experiment, pastures could raise deer under close supervision. This approach, if successful, could revolutionize the way state governments manage this existential threat to their cervical populations.

information publication Have repeatedly introduced rich and colorful but controversial Ranch, founded by tech entrepreneur Brent Oxley who sold a web hosting platform HostGator sold for $220 million in 2012. The ranch caters mostly to upscale customers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to hunt African species such as Bongo, Sable and Buffalo Horns.

This may be the only weekend in the country where customers can hand feed giraffes, hunting endangered species and tools Tanks during World War II while firing machine gun. Guitarist, gun enthusiast and host of the hunting show “Spirit of the Wild” Ted Nugent has praised the cattle ranch as “a true archer’s paradise”.

One of the money Ox Ranch Genetics bought from Gonzalez tested positive for CWD on June 23, 2021, according to public records obtained by The Huffington Post. However, the one he kept didn’t. Neither fawn nor other deer born to the stag had been raised with him for more than two years — all of which were tested after either dying naturally or being euthanized for lymph node extraction. Buck No. XM 28 remains the only deer to test positive for CWD after Ox Ranch Genetics field tested the remaining 800+ deer.

What happened to Ox Ranch is so unique that Texas wildlife officials are letting CWD-positive facilities continue to keep deer. Beginning next year, Ox Ranch will continue to release deer to part of its 18,000-acre hunting ranch for hunters to shoot and eat while the research progresses, according to emails between ranch and wildlife officials.

Under its new agreement, Ox Ranch can only release a total of 200 microchips for hunting, and only if they pass CWD’s rectal and tonsil tests twice a year — usually enough for Ox Ranch CEO Jason Molitor to email To Texas Parks and Wildlife against the plan because of his concern that deer might “run out of tonsil material for testing.”

The deer will also carry ear tags and tattoos with identification numbers, and the ranch must notify nearby properties that it is conducting scientific research before going on a hunt. When the season is over, the ranch will have to find, kill and test any deer that survived the hunting season.

The State of Texas reserves the right to kill all whitetails on the property if Ox Ranch fails to comply with any new regulations.

The experiment marks a major shift in Texas, where wildlife officials have been launching a scorched-earth campaign against CWD for the past few years.

This is also risky. From 2016 to 2018, Texas Parks and Wildlife let two other CWD-positive ranches continue to release deer while monitoring them with less-than-reliable field tests. On both occasions, live tests failed to detect CWD in deer that tested positive for the disease after being killed. Both ranches eventually had to kill their captive deer.

Now, thanks to a better understanding of deer genetics, the same officials are cautiously optimistic about cattle ranching research as key to removing CWD from the state’s captive herds, and possibly even helping them. Control the spread of the disease in the state. wilderness.

Mitch Lockwood, director of the large game program at Texas Parks and Wildlife, told The Huffington Post in May that the study was “very exciting,” although before Huffington Post independently confirmed it was Ox Ranch , who declined to say where the research was conducted.

“Through genetic selection, we think the disease is interrupted,” Lockwood said. “It doesn’t mean that if they were exposed long enough, they wouldn’t get it. But it does appear that there are some deer that don’t test positive for their normal lifespan.”

Ox Ranch has not publicly disclosed CWD cases at its breeding grounds. Molitor declined to comment on the CWD infection, other than to say that only one deer tested positive for the disease and that none of the exposed deer were released to the game ranch itself.

“Science Mystery”

Like mad cow disease in cattle or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, CWD causes brain proteins called prions to misfold, causing neurodegeneration leading to slow death. Deer transmit the virus through bodily fluids such as saliva, urine and semen. (There is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if it crosses the species barrier like mad cow disease, it likely occurs through consumption of infected venison.)

Diseased prions remain contagious long after exposure to air, making CWD difficult to eradicate once it takes root in new populations.

But the comparative experience at Ox Ranch Genetics and Gonzalez breeding grounds provides evidence for something that Texas A&M scientist Chris Seabury demonstrated in a recent study: The genetic makeup of some deer makes them more susceptible than others to the disease. disease.

No single genetic variant can reliably predict whether deer will become more susceptible to CWD. Seabury’s study instead analyzed tens of thousands of genetic data to predict which deer were more likely to develop the disease after exposure. His research shows that genetics can explain 60 to 80 percent of the variance in deer susceptibility to CWD.

“Why we’re not seeing disease transmission at this facility is a bit of a scientific mystery,” Seabury said. “One hypothesis is that this particular herd is persistent. Not all deer are equally susceptible to CWD.”

So far, Seabury’s genome analysis seems to confirm that, fortunately, deer raised at Ox Ranch are less likely to contract CWD. With his help, the ranch will try to keep it that way by weeding out deer with the genetic makeup associated with CWD susceptibility.

Texas deer breeders now see Seabury’s research as a tool to help them keep disease out of their pens, just like USDA nearly eradicates scrapiea similar prion disease from domestic sheep.

It’s a hopeful sign for an industry facing a major crisis. CWD has destroyed dozens of deer keepers.Hundreds of people have given up on the business since the outbreak First appeared in Texas Pen in 2015Many breeders view Texas Parks and Wildlife’s aggressive containment strategy as a war of attrition, with the ultimate goal of ending the state’s captive deer industry.

However, environmentalists have largely viewed genetic selection as a limited tool in the fight against CWD, given how much more difficult it is to control wild deer behavior.

“You can’t breed CWD in the wild,” said Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association. “It’s just a strategy for the captive industry to stay relevant.”

Adams believes that using rectal or tonsil biopsies to screen live deer for CWD is still too unreliable. He noted that the National Herd Certification Program, led by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has repeatedly approved herds to be free of CWD, only to later see undetected cases.

“There are no reliable or practical live animal tests, so the animals continue to move,” Adams said. “It’s definitely a flaw in the system.”

“Laboratory Creatures”

Repeated outbreaks of CWD have also drawn attention to the special role that captive deer play on expensive Texas hunting ranches.

U.S. law generally classifies deer as public wildlife managed by state game agencies. Some states allow captive deer breeding but classify the animals as livestock. Texas is one of the few states that allows ordinary citizens to keep deer in captivity while still classifying the animals as wild.

Through selective breeding, boutique buck semen, and supplemental feeding, deer breeders often aim to raise bucks with large quantities of antlers before releasing them to hunting pastures, where customers can pay a premium at high Captive-bred bucks are hunted on fenced land. Breeding also allows pastures to store more money and sell more prey than natural breeding would support.

Pastures that rely on captive deer rarely discuss their breeding strategies, sometimes giving the impression that their deer breed naturally.

“Be wary of whitetail ranches that enclose deer,” Ox Ranch’s website reads. “Most of them are laboratory-grown monsters that cannot survive in the wild!”

In fact, in addition to running deer enclosures, Ox Ranch uses scientific tools to breed deer on its land, according to email records with state wildlife officials. Like other breeding grounds, it uses a laboratory to store stag semen and artificially inseminate it, rather than relying solely on natural reproduction.

No one fully understands how CWD spontaneously took root in deer enclosures last year.Switch back to the two original sites for positive tests – Gonzalez’s, and robert williams in hunt county – Have not received a deer from their property for many years. Both Gonzalez pens participate in the federal CWD herd certification program.

Some scientists suspect that CWD will erupt spontaneously. Prion diseases such as CWD are also associated with cannibalism. But the disease likely spread to breeding circles in Texas from where it already existed. Because diseased prions can remain in the environment for a long time, they can travel long distances.

Hunters can unknowingly spread CWD by moving infected bodies from one state to another. Scavengers like coyotes and crows may also transmit diseased prions. (One breeder noted that bald eagles typically feed on some of the most contagious parts of a deer, such as the eyes or rectum, and then defecate in the tank the deer drink.) Hunters who rely on bait may be able to travel farther from where the disease is more common. Local spread of CWD.

However, selectively breeding deer with higher resistance to CWD can make them less likely to develop the disease once exposed. This, in turn, prevents farmed deer from shedding more prions that could expose others.

“You can’t completely protect the environment from low levels of pollution,” Seabury said. “But what you can do is selectively breed animals with low susceptibility.”

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