As chronic wasting disease continues to increase in prevalence across the country, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would create a national task force to research and fight a disease …
As chronic wasting disease continues to increase in prevalence across the country, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would create a national task force to research and fight a disease of which little is known.
The Environment and Public Works Committee recently heard testimony on the importance of establishing such a task force.
“One of the biggest threats to deer, elk and moose is chronic wasting disease,” said John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, chairman of the committee.
Kent Leonhardt, commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, similarly told the senators that “CWD is the single greatest threat to hunting and conservation in America today.”
“It has now been detected in 26 states, is 100 percent fatal and impacts all species of North America’s wild deer: whitetails, mule deer, elk, and moose — collectively the most popular, and most economically important game animals in the United States,” Leonhardt said.
He said hunting is a $40 billion-a-year industry that funds conversation efforts for all kinds of wildlife throughout the U.S.
“Collectively, hunters pay the freight for the vast majority of on-the-ground wildlife conservation work,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Through the purchase of licenses, conservation stamps, firearms and ammunition, hunters contribute billions of dollars to wildlife habitat conservation every year, work that clearly benefits the non-hunting public. Deer hunters, who comprise about 80 percent of all hunters, lead the way.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik also testified in front of the committee, helping to dispel myths and inform the senators, who obviously knew little about the disease. Nesvik testified as to the prevalence and management issues in one of the hardest hit states in the country.
“Prior to research from the past five to 10 years, most wildlife managers and members of the public recognized the disease, but took the view that impacts were minimal,” Nesvik said. “We now know that, with high prevalence levels, the disease can limit and even reduce the health and viability of certain wildlife populations.”
Hunt areas in the Big Horn Basin have been hit hard by CWD, with some areas having prevalence rates as high as 50 percent. The department intensified its testing this past hunting season, seeking to learn more about the spread of the disease in areas surrounding Powell.
At one point in last week’s Senate hearing, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, applauded the fact that his state had yet to find CWD in wild populations.
“We don’t have any,” Inhofe said. “Maybe we’re doing something right that nobody else knows about.”
However, Nesvik questioned Oklahoma’s level of testing and research, explaining that Wyoming has been a leader nationally in chasing the disease, actively researching and testing at a high level.
Fosburgh followed by saying the most likely reason for not finding the disease in Oklahoma — despite it being surrounded by states reporting CWD — is because funds have dried up and many states stopped looking.
“Even if you don’t have it now, if you’re surrounded by it, you’re going to get it,” Fosburgh said.
“It sounds like it’s a disease from hell,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana.
Nesvik said attacking the disease on a national level is important.
“Taking a new look into the allocation of federal resources in the face of new information is wise,” he said. A “discussion draft bill” now being considered by Congress “outlines important concepts necessary to establish the framework for a new look,” Nesvik said.
The 2020 House Agriculture Appropriations bill reestablishes federal funding for CWD by providing $15 million to state wildlife agencies for surveillance and testing. The bill is currently in conference with the Senate, which provides just $2.5 million for wild deer.
“If members of this committee care about stopping CWD, I urge you to reach out to your colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and ask them to support the House level of $15 million in the Agriculture Appropriations bill,” Fosburgh said.