Story update: A bill was introduced March 14 by Rep. Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, that would allow the importation of elk and deer by Rhode Island hunting clubs. H5849 was referred to House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
An attempt last year by a “private sporting community” in Richmond to import elk and wild boar for members to hunt grabbed the attention of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, because the proposal would have created Rhode Island’s first captive big-game hunting facility.
The organization, however, was less concerned about the “canned hunting” threat to its fair-chase traditions and more troubled by the fact that importing elk could introduce chronic wasting disease into Rhode Island’s native white-tailed deer population.
A bill has been proposed in the current session of the General Assembly that would prohibit the importation of nonnative and domestic animals for use in canned hunting. A House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare hearing on H5130 was held Feb. 27.
The New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) supports the intent of the bill and has submitted a letter recommending legislators help advance a modified version of it.
Michael Woods, a New England chapter BHA board member, recently told ecoRI News that once chronic wasting disease is introduced it’s virtually impossible to eliminate from an ecosystem. If introduced in Rhode Island, he said, it’s likely that a significant increase in management resources would be required to monitor the disease, and the long-term negative impact would be damaging to the state’s top big-game species: white-tailed deer.
Woods said H5130 would prevent “the privatization of wildlife.”
The avid bow hunter called last year’s move an “egregious” attempt to exploit a legal flaw. He also noted that the importation of wild hogs — “a family of animals that is notoriously difficult to keep in enclosures” — for captive hunting would likely result in the establishment of a feral hog population that would be catastrophic for Rhode Island’s native wildlife and ecosystems.
“I think that it’s an issue that goes well beyond hunting,” said Woods, a 32-year-old Brown University graduate. “It’s something that has to do with disease management in wildlife, potential damage to the ecosystem. There are some economic impacts. The hazards of what can happen inside of that fence can effect all of the native wildlife and all of the native ecosystem outside of the fence. That is where the real hazard lies here.”
H5130 was filed in response to a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Ucci, D-Johnston, during the 2018 General Assembly session that would have allowed any shooting preserve with 500 or more acres to “permit the taking of animals other than domestic game birds” provided a hunting license is bought and other regulations met.
Jerry Sahagian, a founding member of the nearly 1,000-acre Preserve at Boulder Hills Club & Residences, testified during a Statehouse hearing last year that the reason for the requested change in the law was because his Richmond compound is allowed to import elk but not allowed to hunt them.
A Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) spokesman told the Providence Journal in early June of last year that the state agency didn’t give The Preserve permission to import elk. He told the newspaper that as far as DEM knows there are no elk in Rhode Island “and if there are, they shouldn’t be.”
Paul Mihailides, chairman of the board at The Preserve, told the Providence Journal in the same story that the sporting club had no immediate plans to import any animals, including elk or boar. “But if it’s available we would consider it,” he is quoted.
Mihailides did say he would like to see genetically altered deer, which grow abnormally large antlers, on The Preserve. “But in Rhode Island you can’t import anything” without permission, he told the Providence Journal.
The Preserve at Boulder Hills Club & Residences website says this private sporting community is “dedicated to providing extraordinary experiences for the select families who call it their own private getaway. The Preserve is not a club with members. We are a gathering of like-minded individuals who share and enjoy this beautiful land and who are dedicated to its preservation for the enjoyment of generations to come.”
There has never been a reported case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) infection in humans, but that doesn’t mean this disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, and moose can’t impact people, or more specifically taxpayers.
Woods said importing wild and/or genetically altered animals would create serious threats to Rhode Island’s native ecosystems and wildlife. The introduction of the disease to Rhode Island, where it has never been reported, could also pose an economic threat to the local economy, he said.
“What happens after you introduce chronic wasting disease is basically you’re going to end up reducing the financial resources your state has to manage fish and wildlife and to manage hunting,” said Woods, the co-founder and lead engineer for East Providence-based NuLabel Technologies Inc. “You’re going to get less money because people are going to lose interest in hunting diseased animals … so you’re going to lose hunting license sales, you’re going to lose tag sales … and that hurts everyone who is using the outdoors.”
To eliminate the risk of anthropogenic movements of CWD in potentially infected live animals, states, provinces, and tribes should prohibit the movement of live cervids, according to an Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies report on Best Management Practices for Prevention, Surveillance, and Management of Chronic Wasting Disease.
CWD’s economic impact has already been noted in states where the disease is prevalent.
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Richard Bishop estimated, using available data and plausible assumptions, that CWD outbreaks in Wisconsin caused losses in the hunting industry that amounted to between $58 million and $83 million in 2002, the year after the disease was first reported in the Badger State. He estimated smaller losses in 2003, between $30 million and $53 million.
The state of Wisconsin also spent $32.3 million on CWD surveillance and management from 2001 to 2006 to address the disease and monitor its spread, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau.
A CWD outbreak in Tennessee would cause an estimated $46.3 million decline in direct total industry output and a loss of 892 jobs, according to an industry brief.
CWD is a fatal, untreatable, transmissible spongiform encephalopathy similar to mad cow disease that affects all members of the cervid family. Other prion diseases, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, include bovine spongiform encephalopathy, scrapie in sheep and goats, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
Originally recognized in 1967 in southeastern Wyoming and northeastern Colorado, CWD was reported in Canada in 1996 and Wisconsin in 2001. The disease is now found in 24 states, including Pennsylvania and New York, South Korea, and Norway. CWD can be directly and indirectly transmitted through the contact with saliva, urine, feces, and infected carcasses, or contaminated environmental surfaces.
The disease causes the brain of deer and elk to degenerate, leading to severe weight loss, abnormal behavior, and ultimately death. People are strongly advised against eating infected meat, because not enough is known about the potential threat to humans.
Surveys of deer hunters have suggested that nearly half would stop hunting the animal if about 50 percent of wild deer became infected with CWD or if a human-health risk from the disease was identified.
“I am extremely concerned about the either lack of education or the lack of giving a shit when it comes to the real facts that surround this disease and the potential impacts to the wildlife that 99.9 percent of Rhode Islanders enjoy,” Woods said. “What you do on private land, if it is effecting what is happening outside of private land, that no longer becomes OK.”
For instance, he noted that the importing and/or keeping of wild hogs for canned hunting would represent a major threat to Rhode Island’s native ecosystem and wildlife, because wild hogs are notoriously difficult to contain in fenced enclosures and nearly impossible to eradicate if they escape and become established on the landscape. Wild hogs breed rapidly and are very destructive to commercial farms, residential neighborhoods, and native ecosystems, according to Woods.
If established, he said wild hogs would likely outcompete native wildlife such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and coyotes for resources because of their aggressive nature and would require significant resources to manage or eliminate from the ecosystem.