CWD: Uncertainty Plagues Scent Manufacturers

Posted by Patrick Durkin on June 6, 2014 in Conservation, Members
Prion image Most scientists believe Chronic Wasting Disease is caused by a defective protein called a prion. Image: Bio Web
“We want customers to know that scents they buy from us come only from CWD-monitored herds. We’re being proactive. We have nothing to hide. We believe the bigger scent companies, the ATA-member companies, are the ones taking the most precautions. We’re willing to set and follow standards." - Terry Rohm, director of marketing, Tink’s Hunting Products

Few things are certain about chronic wasting disease except that it’s incurable, always fatal, and now infects wild deer and/or elk in two Canadian provinces and 20 states; and captive herds in two provinces and 14 states.

Beyond those basic facts, CWD remains a frustrating, politically charged disease that keeps spawning more questions than answers. For instance, scientists can’t say for certain how CWD spreads in elk and deer herds, but most believe it’s transmitted by animal to animal contact of some sort. Most scientists also believe CWD is caused by a defective protein called a prion – a term coined 30 years ago from “protein” and “infection.” Some scientists, however, believe these rogue proteins aren’t the cause. Rather, they think prions are the result of bacterial infections, which are the true cause of CWD.

Unfortunately for scent manufacturers, prions have been found in deer urine, which has led some states and provinces to take the precautionary step of banning hunters from using urine-based scent products. Most agencies, however, simply urge hunters to use scents with caution. Although there’s no proof that urine from CWD-infected deer transmits the disease to other deer through direct contact, some agencies justify the bans as prudent precautions that are necessary until more is known about CWD and its spread.

Caught in Crossfire

But scent manufacturers feel those precautions hurt business and make them look guilty of playing a role in CWD’s transmission.

“We feel like we’re caught in the middle because no one can give us clear directions on how we should deal with this,” said Terry Rohm, director of marketing for Tink’s Hunting Products. “We understand that wildlife agencies would rather prevent the disease from showing up than to try managing it once it arrives. That makes sense and we want to work with them, but there’s no uniformity in regulations across the country and some of their decisions seem rash, given what’s actually known.”

Rohm is one of several manufacturers working with the Archery Trade Association to see if it’s possible to craft guidelines that would assure wildlife agencies and hunters that ATA-member scent companies are producing safe, reliable products. Mitch King, the ATA’s director of government affairs, said the industry’s scent manufacturers buy products only from captive-deer farms whose herds have at least five years of disease-free operation in inspection programs regulated by state and federal agencies.

“ATA-member scent companies are trying to be proactive in working with the agencies, but it’s tough to set standards and guidelines with so many unknowns,” King said. “The scent manufacturers are proposing to set a high accountability bar for themselves. They would like agencies to help them set standards that they can require urine providers to meet, and then work with the ATA to find an inspection system to verify their performance.

“Unfortunately, there’s no inexpensive way to test animals for CWD until they’re dead,” King continued. “We know of deer farms that tested safely for five, seven or nine years, and then had a deer test positive for CWD a year later. When that happens, what do you know for certain? How long did that deer have the disease, and do other deer in the facility have it?  Unknowns like this make it tough for the agencies and manufacturers.”

King thinks that continued research can identify a way to cheaply and reliably test elk and deer urine for prions. “Scent manufacturers support the advancement of sound science,” King said. “I think we all want a way to prove these products are safe. There’s probably less than 30 captive herds around the country that provide deer or elk urine to the manufacturers of most urine-based scent products. So, our ATA-member scent companies aren’t dealing with the country’s hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of deer farms. What we are trying to do is establish a set of standards that we can present to those few urine-producing deer farms and stipulate that if they want to sell deer and elk urine to these major scent manufacturers, they must meet standards that were developed with wildlife agencies.”

Where’s the Proof?

John Bergeson, president of Wildlife Research Center, thinks agencies shouldn’t enact bans without solid proof. “There’s no evidence from scientific research that urine can spread CWD, and the urine we sell is from a facility that has been monitored for five years and counting,” Bergeson said. “I don’t know what else we can do. The combination of those two factors makes it really difficult for me to believe that our scents are a disease concern.”

Judi Collora, co-owner of the Mrs. Doe Pee’s Buck Lure with her husband, Sam, said their business took extra steps starting in 2002 to ensure their animals from which they collected their scents are disease-free. That includes owning their elk and deer, and not buying urine or new animals from outside sources since 2002.

“Our deer and elk scents come from our own herds, and those herds are closed,” she said. “We’re now in our 13th year of testing for CWD, and before that, we were testing for tuberculosis. We’ve tested nearly 250 deer for CWD since 2002. We care about our animals and our business. We take this very seriously. It’s unfair for states like Arizona and Pennsylvania to hurt the scent and lure industry when they impose bans even though researchers can’t substantiate how CWD spreads, let alone if it’s spread by scents.”

Dr. Gary Alt, who retired as the chief deer manager for the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 2005, said he understands why agencies enact scent/lure bans as a precaution. Alt notes that CWD wasn’t discovered until the 1970s, and so research into the disease isn’t that far along in the grand scheme.

“Scientists will always say that lack of proof doesn’t prove something is or isn’t safe,” Alt said. “As long as there’s a possibility you could spread CWD through scent products, wildlife agencies will want to err on the side of caution. They don’t want to risk CWD spot-fires breaking out as people spread urine from one infected herd all over the place. If that happened, the hunting public would crucify them for not playing it safe. They’re in a tough spot too.”

Rohm said he understands that concern, but thinks all risk factors aren’t created equally.

“We want customers to know that scents they buy from us come only from CWD-monitored herds,” Rohm said. “We’re being proactive. We have nothing to hide. We believe the bigger scent companies, the ATA-member companies, are the ones taking the most precautions. We’re willing to set and follow standards.

“But what about all the small operations that just sell locally?” Rohm continued. “What controls and precautions do they take? We could agree to a bunch of restrictions and still lose everything because a small operation ignored everything we’ve done. We want to protect deer. They’re a precious resource. If we found something that shows we’re spreading CWD, we’d shut things down now. I truly believe that.”

ATA follows CWD information closely. In August 2013, ATA reported the CWD forecast was grim, based on an interview with Wisconsin veterinarian David Clausen. Clausen served nearly seven years on the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.