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Hunters, government, industry at odds over deer urine

ALBANY, N.Y. — Deer hunters who like to lure their quarry with a dab of eau de doe-in-rut will have to find another way to attract a trophy buck in New York if state wildlife biologists have their way.

Proposed regulations would add New York to a growing list of states and Canadian provinces banning deer urine lures in an effort to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease, a deadly brain infection that’s working its way through North American deer, elk and moose populations.

The disease is similar to so-called mad cow disease, which affects cattle. Both diseases are caused by infectious proteins called prions, which are believed to be shed in saliva, feces and urine and can contaminate forage plants and build up in soil.

“Not only does this horrible disease kill animals slowly, but wild white-tailed deer hunting represents a $1.5 billion industry in the state,” Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said in releasing a draft plan to control it last month.

Since the disease was first recognized in captive mule deer in Colorado about 50 years ago, it has slowly spread to 24 states and two Canadian provinces. States have spent millions of dollars trying to halt it; Wisconsin even hired sharpshooters to kill deer in an infected area.

Wasting disease was discovered in a handful of wild and captive white-tailed deer in central New York in 2005, prompting the state to enact measures to halt it. They include a feeding ban to avoid concentrating deer in one area, a prohibition on hunters bringing deer carcasses from infected states into New York, and a ban on deer farms importing livestock. It’s the only state to have eliminated the disease after it was found in wild populations, Seggos said.

Now the state is taking public comments through Sept. 15 on additional rules, the most controversial being the ban on scent lures using natural deer urine.

That ban doesn’t sit well with deer farmers who collect and sell urine, manufacturers who market it under names like “Code Blue” and “Buck Bomb,” and hunters who dribble the foul-smelling fluid on foliage or cotton balls hung near their tree stands.

“When you’re bowhunting, you have to draw the deer in close,” said Dave Vanderzee, president of the New York Deer Farmers Association and operator of a private hunting preserve. “Attractant is the only way to do it in New York because you’re not allowed to have a bait pile.”

Ed Gorch, an upstate New York hunter who has been bowhunting for 45 years, said he uses deer urine and other scents, even skunk, to distract deer from his own smell. “As for switching to synthetic scents, I don’t think it would make much difference,” Gorch said. “I think most sportsmen would go along with that once they realize the danger of chronic wasting disease.”

Of about 275 deer farms in New York, 10 percent to 15 percent collect urine in barns with grated floors that allow urine to drain into a collection vat, Vanderzee said. A state ban on urine scents would devastate the captive deer industry, which has already suffered under a host of ever-stricter state regulations, he said.

Dr. Nicholas Haley, a veterinary researcher at Midwestern University, said the captive deer producing urine used by hunters are some of the healthiest animals in the country. Disease transmission, he said, is less likely from urine than from deer meat brought in by hunters from infected areas.

New York allows hunters to bring in venison and hides from infected states but not deer bones and brains, which are considered more likely to carry disease prions.

“We’re all for the health of the herd, which is why we partnered with the Archery Trade Association in developing stringent guidelines for collection facilities to minimize the potential for contamination,” said Chip Hunnicutt, spokesman for the scent-maker Tink’s.

Tink’s also makes synthetic scent lures that are allowed in states with urine bans. Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, Virginia, Ontario and Nova Scotia have banned the use of natural deer urine and other aromatic deer secretions.

Jeremy Hurst, a New York state biologist, said “research clearly suggests there is some risk” of transmitting wasting disease through deer urine scents. In recent years, he said, the disease has been detected in captive herds previously thought to be free of it.

Krysten Schuler, a Cornell University biologist who has been researching chronic wasting disease since 2002 and helped develop New York’s response plan, said there’s no commercially available test to ensure urine products are free of disease prions.

“Until this product is proven safe, I don’t think hunters should risk contaminating their favorite hunting spot,” Schuler said. “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it gets out there.”