There have been threats, and they’ve fallen to the ground like a clean-shot deer. There has been progress, and there has been regress.
Through it all, there have been too many deer, say farmers and the organization that represents them. Too few, say some hunters.
Through it all, there has been bovine tuberculosis, lifting its mangled head periodically even outside Michigan’s traditional TB hot spots. It’s been found in deer and cattle, and the price tag is enormous.
Who infected whom is still debated among some folks, but the farming community thinks it’s clear. Deer continue to infect cattle with TB, and something has to be done about it.
The USDA thinks so too, which brings us back to a threat that, if allowed to progress, could seriously damage Michigan’s $16 billion dairy industry and its $529 million beef industry. It wants MDARD and the Michigan DNR to get serious about the deer herd in and around Deer Management Unit 452.
The USDA has threatened to regress all of the Lower Peninsula back to a Modified Accredited TB status unless it can comply with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between it and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) that’s been in place since 2014.
“That was the shocker we got in the meeting with the USDA in August,” said Michigan State Veterinarian James Averill. “Our response to that option was that it does not get to the root cause of the issue we have with a reservoir of TB in free-ranging deer. The USDA’s options would reinstate testing, but would do nothing to address the interaction between domestic animals and wildlife.”
The MOU is relatively clear. Michigan is to have no more than three infected cattle herds in any 12-month period if it wants to keep its TB-Accredited Free status for all of the Lower Peninsula except Montmorency, Alpena, Oscoda and Alcona counties. The Upper Peninsula would remain Accredited Free.
“We had five infected herds in 2016, so we’ve been out of compliance with the MOU for a year and a half,” Averill said. “USDA asked us in December of 2016 to send a proposal on what we were going to do about it, and we sent that in January. In August, when Dr. (Jack) Shere (USDA’s Deputy Administrator) was in Michigan, we met one afternoon and he laid out what he thought were our two options.”
The first option was to reclassify those four Modified Accredited Zone (MAZ) counties to Accreditation Preparatory, which Averill said is one step down from current status.
The second option is to drop the entire state to Modified Accredited status.
If that option happens, the entire Lower Peninsula would be required to go back to a system of whole-herd testing on a lottery basis, along with movement testing within 60 days of any animals leaving the farm.
That option is the worst-case scenario, according to Ernie Birchmeier, dairy and livestock specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. He said the loss of confidence in Michigan’s cattle and dairy industries would be significant, while also redirecting limited state and federal fund and program staff to fight TB currently focused on four counties to the entire state.
“As we’ve seen in the past, our markets take a serious hit,” he said. “We’ve had bans on our livestock from neighboring states. We’ve had the added expense to farmers for TB testing and follow-ups.”
According to Averill, MDARD has worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to submit a third option to USDA—an option that maintains current TB status designations, while putting additional focus on both livestock and wildlife management practices.
The most drastic part of the plan—to bring in USDA Wildlife Services (WS) sharpshooters—was approved by the DNR’s Natural Resource Commission’s (NRC). In a letter to USDA, DNR Director Keith Creagh outlined a proposal to require “all cattle herds in the high-risk area of the MA zone …to allow WS access to conduct targeted removal of antlerless deer on their farm.
Under the MDARD/DNR proposal, 150 commercial farms in the high-risk area would undergo a mandatory “enhanced wildlife biosecurity assessment” and must have a plan in place if they want to move cattle anywhere other than directly to a slaughterhouse.
MFB Legislative Counsel Andrew Vermeesch said he hopes USDA gives the third option serious consideration and recognizes the significance of MDARD and DNR’s cooperative efforts to improve both livestock practices as well as limit disease transmission in wildlife in Northeast Michigan.
“TB is not just a livestock problem or just a wildlife problem,” Vermeesch said. “It requires collaboration between the NRC, DNR, MDARD, the hunting community and livestock farmers to address this problem—this plan does that.”
In addition to the sharpshooter component to target removal of deer on cattle farms in the high-risk area, additional steps called for within the proposal include:
From the MDARD side of the equation, Averill said while biosecurity practices have been in place on a voluntary basis for several years, those practices would be monitored much more closely.
“We will take a closer look to be sure farmers are following their plan,” he said. “For example, if livestock are housed inside year-round, we’ll check the plan once a year. If they graze outside, we move inspection to twice a year.”
Averill said the inspections will be designed to “check if there are any chinks in the armor of their plan,” and to provide pressure on neighbors to shore up their wildlife mitigation plans. It is hoped that the Michigan legislature will provide more cost-share money to help farmers complete their plans.
If such efforts, among others, are agreeable to the USDA, it could help avert the federal government from “taking the nuclear option” of regressed TB status, Averill said.