Last month, Missouri announced they’re banning bait for deer in 41 counties to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). In response, Jay Gregory of The Wild Outdoors on Sportsman Channel posted a video on Facebook to give his thoughts on the new law. His six minute rant went viral, with over 1,000 comments, 1,500 shares, and 123,000 views.
In the video, Jay referred to those who study CWD as “idiots” and “snot-nose biologists,” and told viewers why the disease isn’t a threat. In comments on the post, Jay also said that insurance companies have “influence with decisions being made at the top levels,” implying that CWD is a hoax the state is using to eradicate deer and satisfy private lobbyists.
I felt that Jay was recklessly using his platform to spread falsities about CWD, so I reached out to three different conservation organizations to see if they’d directly respond to his statements. Not one was willing, as they felt that replying to individuals who act like this isn’t worth their time.
“His comments are irresponsible, childish, and completely misinformed,” one group told me through email. “That said, we are not going to address him or his dialogue directly, but will instead continue to be a source for accurate information.”
I took the group up on their offer, and pored over the research myself to come up with responses to Jay and those who share these same viewpoints. Following are direct quotes from Jay in two videos posted to Facebook on June 12 and June 15.
"They're claiming that, this CWD, which in my opinion these deer have had since the beginning of time, and then all of a sudden someone has created a name for this disease." - Jay Gregory
The disease was first identified in Colorado in 1967. Since then, it has spread across North America through an avenue of sources. In one Wisconsin county, more than 50 percent of adult bucks have tested positive for the disease, and the rate has climbed faster each year that testing has been done.
“While it is challenging to prove either way, there is little evidence to support the idea that CWD has existed as long as deer have. The CWD distribution pattern observed in several geographic regions suggests disease was introduced in a modern timeframe, became established, and subsequently spread in a radial and progressive fashion,” said Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.
Even if we were to accept that CWD has been around forever, that doesn’t change the effect it has on deer herds. This would be like if we stopped caring about cancer because it’s been around “since the beginning of time.”
(source Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership)
"I don't see where CWD is, I don't understand the whole thing, I've done a lot of research on it. No one human being has ever been effected by it." - Jay Gregory
In June of 2017, it was discovered that CWD can make the leap from deer to macaque monkeys. The monkeys contracted the disease by eating meat from a CWD-positive deer.
“The assumption was for the longest time that chronic wasting disease was not a threat to human health,” said Stefanie Czub, prion researcher at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “But with the new data, it seems we need to revisit this view to some degree.”
Three of the five macaques that were fed infected meat over a three-year period tested positive for CWD. The amount fed to them was the human equivalent of eating a 7-once steak per month. CWD is similar to mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, meaning it’s likely to be fatal if it crosses over into humans.
(source Alberta Prion Research Institute)
"Mother nature kills deer. We have EHD. You're not going to beat EHD. It just happens. It's a midge. It bites the deer and gives them a fever. Some of them die and some of them don't. CWD, in my opinion, is just a crock of crap if you ask me." - Jay Gregory
Comparing EHD to CWD is irresponsible since they’re totally different diseases.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is a virus spread by biting gnats. It cannot be spread from deer to deer, and is only contracted from infected insects. EHD is present everywhere in North America, but outbreaks are most likely to show up in areas experiencing drought. Some deer survive, and herd immunity is higher in areas with more historical exposure. Humans cannot get EHD, and the virus cannot survive outside of the deer host.
CWD is a syndrome of the central nervous system in which the brain deteriorates. It’s caused when normal proteins called prions become deformed. It is spread deer-to-deer through various forms of contact, like saliva, urine, feces, blood, and body parts. CWD has been found in 23 states and two provinces. It’s always fatal and infected deer take an average of one to two years to start showing symptoms. Infectious materials can remain viable for years, and as noted earlier, there are growing concerns that it could jump to humans.
As you can see, EHD and CWD aren’t at all similar. Using one to draw conclusions about the other isn't practical.
(source Quality Deer Management Association)
"We'll abide by their stupid law [referring to baiting restrictions]." - Jay Gregory
A recent study has shown that CWD prions are common among baiting sites. Biologists searched for the prions at mineral licks, and found that nine out of 11 had detectable levels of disease-causing misfolded proteins. Prions were found in both the soil and water at the mineral site, as well as in nearby fecal samples.
“It’s a great advance for trying to understand how this disease transmits in the environment,” said Rodrigo Morales, professor of neurology and prion researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “It explains what could be the main source of transmission.”
Although it’s not clear that the soil-dwelling prions detected are sufficient to infect deer, there is enough evidence there to suggest hot-spot areas of CWD should eliminate baiting. Until further studies can be conducted, continuing baiting is a high risk, low reward practice.
We need to also consider what the benefits are of bait and minerals. Numerous studies have shown that mineral sites don’t contribute to an increase in herd health or antler size. In one study, there was greater antler development in yearling bucks that were fed minerals versus those that weren’t. However, the deer had a “nutritionally deficient diet below what most whitetails would have access to in the wild,” and both groups had the same antler development the following season as 2.5-year-olds.
(source Quality Deer Management Association, University of Auburn, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
"Look at Wisconsin, ask those people where they tried to devastate the herds in those areas. Ask them if they ever recovered from their CWD issues that they tried to fix up there by just wiping out the deer herd. It just makes no sense to me. If you're worried about the deer dying, yet you're just going to go kill them in fear that they're going to spread it. I don't buy it. I just don't buy it." - Jay Gregory
That’s correct, Wisconsin couldn’t stop their CWD problem by killing off deer. However, Wisconsin isn’t a very good example of CWD control, since the disease was already out of control.
“I don’t share that fatalistic view [that CWD can’t be stopped], and I think there’s still a lot we can do – although I admit that in several places (parts of Wisconsin), the horse has not only left the barn, it died some time ago,” said Lou Conicelli, wildlife research manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
It also needs to be considered what Missouri’s goal is when doing winter culls. In the last 10 years, a total of 4631 deer have been harvested during the winter cull. Although over 100,000 deer have been tested for CWD though other methods, about 48% of positive cases are from winter culls – meaning it’s the most effective way to track the disease.
Targeted culling has had small numbers and big results, and is a model inspired by the success that Illinois has had with stabilizing the spread of CWD.
(source New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Missouri Department of Conservation, Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership)
“It’s ironic, because the things that they said and the arguments they made, those exact opposite arguments can be made by other biologists and by other people who are way more intelligent than I am.” - Jay Gregory
I strongly encourage you to find a scientific journal or reputable agency that denies CWD, because it’s been impossible for me. I reached out to three deer conservation groups, and none of them were aware of any studies that share these viewpoints, either.
I’m sure you can find random game wardens and bio technicians in every agency that don’t believe in CWD, but it’s likely out of ignorance and has no scientific basis.