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Concerns Arise with Oklahoma’s new CWD Law: Can we Breed out CWD?

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Oklahoma’s governor signed the Chronic Wasting Disease Genetic Improvement Act last week. This law targets Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer herds and signals a proactive stance toward wildlife conservation. However, beneath the surface of this initiative lie concerns and considerations that warrant careful thought. The Chronic Wasting Disease Genetic Improvement Act is aimed at combating CWD through genetic strategies. This bill also transfers disease oversight to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, suggesting the Dept of Ag has more experience in dealing with CWD. Many conservation groups called for its veto before the law was signed. 

One of the primary concerns surrounding Chronic Wasting Disease Genetic Improvement Act is the efficacy of genetic improvement programs in combating CWD. The act plans to investigate the combination of DNA from farmed deer herds with Oklahoma’s wild deer herds, possibly altering the wild herds forever. While selective breeding for resistance to the disease may hold promise, this approach’s long-term effectiveness and feasibility remain uncertain. Critics argue that relying solely on genetic manipulation may overlook broader ecological factors contributing to the spread of CWD, such as habitat degradation and human activities.

Patrick Durkin interviewed Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist at New York’s Cornell University in a 2022 article for the Deer Association. Schuler is skeptical of a resistance breeding program. “I doubt we’re going to breed our way out of this problem,” Schuler said. “It’s a pie-in-the-sky hope. No one has documented a deer surviving CWD, so no one has a truly CWD-resistant deer. Some deer take longer to get CWD, and they might live longer once they get it, but they still get CWD and it still kills them. So how can anyone say they can selectively breed more of something that doesn’t exist?” 

There are ethical considerations associated with genetic manipulation in wildlife populations. Introducing selective breeding programs raises questions about the potential unintended consequences and impacts on the natural genetic diversity of deer herds. Some conservationists caution against manipulating natural selection processes, warning of unforeseen ecological disruptions and loss of gene resilience in the long run.

Another concern is the financial and logistical challenges of implementing and sustaining comprehensive monitoring and surveillance efforts for CWD. While the Chronic Wasting Disease Genetic Improvement Act allocates funding for these purposes, the ongoing costs associated with testing, research, and enforcement may strain state resources long term. The effectiveness of monitoring programs may be hindered by logistical constraints, such as limited access to remote areas and difficulties in testing wild deer populations.

There are socio-economic implications, particularly for Oklahoma’s hunting industry and rural communities. CWD outbreaks can harm hunting opportunities and associated revenue streams, impacting livelihoods and local economies dependent on outdoor recreation. Balancing the need for disease management with the interests of hunters and landowners requires careful consideration and stakeholder engagement to ensure a collaborative and sustainable approach.

The broader context of wildlife management and conservation raises questions about the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the need for holistic strategies. Addressing the root causes of CWD, such as habitat fragmentation and wildlife-human interactions, requires comprehensive approaches beyond genetic manipulation alone. Collaborative efforts involving diverse stakeholders, including government agencies, conservation organizations, and local communities, are essential for effective and sustainable wildlife management practices.

While the Chronic Wasting Disease Genetic Improvement Act represents a proactive step toward addressing CWD in deer herds, it raises significant concerns that merit thoughtful consideration. As the state moves forward with implementing this legislation, it is imperative to engage in open dialogue, rigorous scientific inquiry, and adaptive management practices to navigate the complexities of wildlife conservation in the face of emerging threats like CWD.

Justin Townsend

Justin (Choctaw) is an avid hunter, angler, and chef whose passion for the outdoors lead him to create Harvesting Nature in 2011. He continues to hunt, fish, and cook all while sharing his experiences with others through film, podcasts, print, and with recipes. He also proudly serves in the United States Coast Guard.

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