Hunters help safeguard Arizona’s deer and elk from chronic wasting disease

GREER – On a chilly fall morning in eastern Arizona, families taking part in a youth hunting camp awoke before dawn to hunt elk.

Gage Martinez, 14, was one of the last to shoot an elk, but by midmorning, it was skinned and hanging from a tree by its hind legs.

“I was so excited, my hand was shaking,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, three Arizona Game & Fish Department biologists gathered around the elk’s head. One of them used a small knife to cut into the animal’s cheek to remove the lymph nodes, which will be sent to a lab in Colorado to be tested for chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

CWD is a neurodegenerative disease found in deer, elk and moose populations. It’s prevalent in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, which neighbor Arizona. Infected animals become unresponsive, emaciated and eventually die.

So far, regular testing and strict laws have kept Arizona CWD free. But that could change quickly.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with Arizona Game & Fish. “It may be an impossible challenge, because states that we didn’t think were going to get it now have it.”

Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, pulls out the lymph nodes from an elk’s cheek. The nodes will be sent to Colorado for chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Last year, CWD was found in Montana. The year before, it was discovered in Arkansas. The disease now has been detected in 24 states, where it has reduced herds by 20 to 40 percent.

“We need to make sure that wildlife populations are healthy because they really play an important role in keeping the landscape and the environment sustained,” Justice-Allen said.

Researchers are trying to learn more about the disease and to find a vaccine, but right now there is no cure.

“In Colorado and other states, we don’t know how to eradicate it,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman with Colorado’s Park and Wildlife Department. “All we can do is manage it.”

Hunting season is key

Hunters are on the front line of Arizona’s efforts to keep the disease at bay.

There is no way to determine whether a deer or elk has CWD until the late stages of the disease, when physical symptoms appear.

“You may have seen signage or posters with sick-looking deer that lead us to believe anyone can visually identify it,” Duncan said. “But in reality, most deer with CWD look perfectly healthy and you would never be able to tell.”

David Drever, a biologist intern with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, writes information about the elk and where it was killed on a slip paper to be included with the lymph node sample. The department hires extra interns in the fall to help with chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

There is no blood test for CWD, so the animal must be dead to collect and test a lymph-node sample.

“That’s part of the reason why managing it through hunting and testing the deer that people harvest is the best option we have,” Duncan said.

Hunting season is the only time of the year when Arizona Game & Fish can regularly test for CWD. The goal is to test as many animals as possible during this time.

Last year, the department tested more than 1,200 samples statewide, and officials hope to test even more this year.

“Our goal is to test enough animals on an annual basis to try and make sure we can detect it if it’s present in even just 1 percent of the population,” Justice-Allen said.

Arizona Game & Fish opened a new testing center in Springerville to help with this goal, and Justice-Allen and her team are going to more hunting camps this season to collect samples and spread awareness.

“We’re talking to hunters and letting them know what we’re doing out here and why it’s important that we’re doing the disease-monitoring project and taking samples,” said David Drever, a biologist intern with Game & Fish.

Not all hunters, however, process the meat themselves or take the time to voluntarily provide their animal for testing, so the department pays professional taxidermists and meat processors to fill in the gaps. Justice-Allen said about half of the samples Game & Fish tests are collected from these sources.

Rusty Rogers, a hunter and a committe member of the White Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountian Elk Foundation, worries about the possibility of CWD coming to the state. He said all it would take is one case of CWD to devastate deer herds. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Arizona quick to act

Beyond testing, Arizona has strict laws related to captive deer management and how deer meat is handled. Experts say these measures are another key part of the state’s success at keeping CWD out of the state.

Arizona has banned traditional deer farms where private owners raise deer to hunt or sell byproducts because of concerns about the potential role these farms could have in spreading CWD.

But zoos and animal sanctuaries, such as Grand Canyon Deer Farm near Williams, are allowed to keep captive deer.

Amy Kravitz, a biologist at the deer farm, said the farm submits deer for disease testing anytime one dies. The farm also needs special permission from Game & Fish to import deer, she said, and can only bring in animals from CWD-free states.

The state also bans people from bringing whole deer carcasses or central nervous tissue – the brain and spinal cord, which contain the highest concentrations of the protein that causes CWD – into Arizona.

In addition, Arizona is one of only a few states to ban hunters from using deer urine or grain feed as bait to attract game, due to concerns these methods can cause the disease to spread more quickly.

“Some of these things occur in other areas of the country,” Justice-Allen said. “Here we’re cautious and just don’t allow it.”

An uphill battle

Despite such efforts, chronic wasting disease has continued to spread since it was first detected in wild deer populations in Colorado in 1981.

“It’s something that we’re always thinking about and concerned about,” Justice-Allen said.

This is part of the reason why Arizona Game & Fish has redoubled its efforts in recent years to collect more samples. The disease, however, often is spread by natural deer movement, which can’t be controlled. Wild deer can travel 50 to 100 miles, so it’s possible CWD infected deer from a neighboring state can cross into Arizona.

“In some states like Montana, where it was just detected last year,” Justice-Allen said, “it’s probably been there for a year or two before they found it.”

If the disease comes to Arizona, state workers and hunters hope it will be discovered in a few months instead of a few years.

“We try very hard to manage our herds to keep them at a maximum level, and all it would take is one serious case of CWD to just throw everything out of balance,” said Rusty Rogers, an avid hunter and committee member for the White Mountain chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The quicker Game & Fish can respond, the greater the likelihood it could limit the spread of the disease.

The department would have to remove the infected deer and any other deer that could have come in contact with the infected animal and its waste.

In other states after CWD was detected, officials released bonus tags to hunters for trying to keep the deer population down, and instituted mandatory CWD testing.

A long road ahead

The Arizona Game & Fish Department spends about $70,000 on CWD testing each year, which is around 27 percent of its wildlife-health budget.

The department hires extra interns in the fall to help operate the Springerville testing station and another one in Kaibab, pick up samples from taxidermists and meat processors, and monitor hunting camps.

“It’s a lot easier for us to keep diseases out than it is to try and control them once they’re here,” Justice-Allen said.

Knowing their game is safe to eat also provides hunters with peace of mind.

“To be clear, it has never been found to cross the species barrier from deer or elk to humans,” Drever said, “but it is still a concern that people have had in their minds of ‘Do I want to eat an animal that has a disease?’”

Despite Arizona’s success so far, experts don’t expect the threat to ease anytime soon.

“This is something that we have to manage over the course of the next 10 to 15 years and maybe even beyond, who knows,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be a decades-long fight, not just year-to-year.”

-Video by Jordan Dafnis

Searching for poachers, wildlife officers crack down on illegal hunting

FLORENCE, Arizona – Officer Laura Orscheln sets up her binoculars and tripod and stands on a ridge overlooking the quiet desert near Florence, a rural desert community an hour south of Phoenix. Scanning the desert for any movement, the Arizona Game & Fish Department wildlife manager spots something dark moving about a mile away.

Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager Officer Laura Orscheln looks for animals and hunters. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

It’s just trash, so she sweeps her binoculars elsewhere. She’s “glassing” – a practice hunters use to identify game from a distance.

But Orscheln isn’t just looking for animals, she’s also looking for hunters. She keeps her eyes peeled and listens for gunshots.

Nearly 100 wildlife managers travel across Arizona to monitor hunts, check tags and licenses and study animal populations. They focus much of their time on protecting wildlife and trying to stop poaching – a duty they say is critical to maintaining healthy populations and ensure the survival of species across Arizona.

Poaching is a widespread problem around the world. According to the Humane Society of the United States, legal hunters kill tens of millions of animals every year. But for each animal killed legally, another is killed illegally, it says.

Experts estimate that less than 5 percent of poachers in the U.S. are caught, the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust reports.

In 2017, Arizona Game & Fish issued 76 citations for the illegal taking of big game, fishing violations and the unlawful killing of raptors. The department collected $74,500 in fines.

On this day, a javelina hunt, licensed and organized by Game & Fish, is under way. It’s one of the many big game hunts throughout the year. As a wildlife manager, it’s part of Orscheln’s job to keep track of what’s happening in this expanse of desert.

Javelinas resemble wild boars but are members of the collared peccary family. Some people eat them by cooking them like pork. Hunters in Arizona can kill two a year, with a permit. (Photo by Wing-Chi Poon, Creative Commons )

Because of the negative effects poaching can have on wildlife management – and the multi million-dollar economic impact hunting has on the state – the department has placed an emphasis on catching poachers in Arizona. It offers thousands of dollars in rewards for information leading to arrests, manages the Operation Game Thief website and toll-free hotline (800-352-0700) and even uses robotic mule deer decoys to try to catch thieves.

Tyler VanVleet, the department’s law-enforcement program manager, said the hotline is essential to the mission.

“We can’t be out there 24/7, so we rely quite a bit on tips from the public. We get a lot of information from neighbors and people who are out in the field and see something,” he said. “We rely on people to police themselves and do what’s right by the law.”

Last year, the hotline received more than 1,000 calls from people reporting possible poaching incidents or suspicious activity.

“There’s a difference between a hunter and a sportsman,” Officer Orscheln said. “A sportsman is somebody who goes out and abides by all the laws to the best of their ability. They’re out there with the intention of doing it the right way. It’s not just runnin’ and gunnin’, trying to kill something.”

Officer Laura Orschelna with the Arizona Game & Fish Department patrols a javelina hunt near Florence. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

Hunting in Arizona

During Orscheln’s patrol near Florence, she stopped at a campsite after noticing a javelina hanging by its hind legs from a tree. The hunters had gutted the javelina and hung it to preserve the meat.

When Orscheln arrived, the hunters showed their licenses. The hunters had the proper paperwork, but they had failed to tag their animal. Tags are required for permission to hunt certain animals.

In Arizona, there are small-game and big-game hunts. The hunts are organized according to weapon, species and geographic location. For small game, such as doves, pigeons and squirrels, hunters need a general hunting license, and they must hunt the animal within its specified season. For example, squirrels are in season from October to December.

To hunt big game, such as deer, javelina and bears, hunters must apply for a permit through Arizona Game & Fish. The department issues big-game permits through a draw system, which only allows a certain number of permits and tags each year, depending on the species’ population, Orscheln said.

For example, permitted hunters can take two javelinas a year, but they can only kill one bighorn sheep during a lifetime. (And obtaining a permit isn’t easy – the state auctions or raffles three tags each year, bringing in about $400,000.)

Even if a hunter has a license, failing to tag the animal right after the kill can result in a citation. Orscheln said it’s critical for hunters to tag correctly to prevent “buddy hunting.”

“Buddy hunting” is essentially using someone else’s tag for an animal you shot.

“Or people will – and this is the snakey, criminal stuff – people will kill a deer and not put a tag on it. They make it all the way home, they never get checked,” Orscheln said. “Nobody ever knows. They come back out, and they hunt again on the same tag.”

On the February hunt, the hunter who killed the javelina was in his late teens and said it was his first big-game kill. Orscheln let him off with a warning, but she advised him to that he needs to tag his animal as soon as he gets it.

Poaching doesn’t necessarily only mean killing animals without the proper permits.

Orscheln said one form of poaching is wasting game meat. “People can’t just hunt and kill things. You have to take it home for consumption,” Orscheln said. “Or donate it.”

Following the rules

The department established the hotline in 1979 to bring civil action against poachers, or those unlawfully taking, wounding or killing wildlife, according to the department’s website.

It’s one of the main ways the wildlife managers find poachers. Orscheln said they need callers to provide as much information as possible.

“We need the vehicle that they get in and leave in, and a license plate, and what their equipment looks like,” Orscheln said. “If there’s something weird about the way they walk, we want to know that because it all just helps us narrow in on the person who committed the violation. We’re just like any other officer. We can’t write a ticket based off of assumption and heresy.”

Experts said the hotline is popular because most hunters understand the importance of keeping wildlife populations healthy.

“It is absolutely important to go about everything the right way, as far as getting your tag the proper way, putting in through the lottery system,” said Daniel Gradillas, 39, of El Mirage. “Once they give you a tag, they’re able to record data and know how many animals were taken out of a certain area.”

It’s often a delicate balance. Game & Fish officials must weigh populations carefully. If there are too many animals, diseases could spread. If there are too few, hunting could seriously deplete the population.

“If somebody illegally takes an animal,” Orscheln said, “they have essentially robbed someone else of the opportunity to legally take that animal, or they’ve robbed the population of a breeding animal that would contribute to sustaining the population.”

There’s another reason officials want to keep animal populations at healthy levels.

Hunting in Arizona brings about $592 million into the state’s economy, supports more than 5,700 jobs and generates $42.4 million annually in taxes for Arizona, according to a 2011 study done by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish & Game website boasts that Arizona “offers some of the best, and most unique, hunting opportunities in the nation.”

Gradillas said hunting has been a part of his life since he was a child.

“I first started deer hunting, and to this day, deer hunting still excites me. I love the challenge,” he said. “Any time I go out, I still feel like a little kid. Anytime I look through binoculars and I see a deer, it’s just that excitement that was instilled in me as a child and it never gets old.”

Daniel Gradillas, an El Mirage resident, has been hunting since he was a child. Gradillas is also a taxidermist and is opposed to poaching. (Photo by Meagan Boudreau/Cronkite News)

Poaching: ‘It’s stealing’

Orscheln said most hunters are used to visits from wildlife managers.

During a hunt, Orscheln said she wants to “talk to as many hunters as I possibly can and fly the flag so to speak. Let them know we’re out there.”

“I try to go to an area where I know I’m going to find camps.”

In 2017, wildlife violations in Arizona resulted in $74,500 in civil fines. That money goes directly to the Wildlife Theft Prevention Fund, according to the Fish & Game Department. The department uses the money to reward people who report information that leads to an arrest, fund and promote the hotline, and support investigations into possible poaching.

In January, the department offered up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest regarding the illegal killing of a mule deer near Tucson.

“Poaching itself, it’s stealing,” Gradillas said. “It’s one of the most selfish acts that someone can commit.”

“People can go a lifetime going the proper channels trying to get a tag, say, for a bighorn sheep. Then there’s someone who will go out in the middle of the night and blind a bighorn sheep with their headlights and take it, shoot and then not even take the animal, just shoot it for the thrill of the kill. But it’s very unfortunate and sad.”