State wildlife officials are demanding changes in the processing of deer shot in Rapid City’s herd-reduction program after learning that hundreds of pounds of packaged venison must be thrown away because it might have been tainted by chronic wasting disease.
The problem involved 17 deer shot recently by city snipers and butchered together at the Western Buffalo Co. plant in Rapid City. The venison was ground into more than 600 pounds of burger and sent to the local Feeding South Dakota warehouse for storage and eventual distribution.
Program policy requires that samples be taken from all deer shot in the herd-reduction program. They are then tested at South Dakota State University for CWD before the meat is distributed. Samples from the 17 deer showed that one had CWD, a fatal brain disease that infects deer, elk and moose.
Because all 17 deer were processed in one lot at Western Buffalo, the entire lot must be discarded.
“It’s unfortunate. We hate to do it,” said Matt Gassen, CEO of Feeding South Dakota in Sioux Falls. “But we also don’t want to risk having tainted meat distributed to families.”
It’s not the first time CWD detections in deer shot in the city program required some ground venison to be discarded. Going into this winter, state Game, Fish & Parks officials were already concerned about venison that was wasted in the past because of CWD detections.
GF&P wanted to have deer processed in smaller lots — preferably about 5 animals each — so that a CWD detection would require less burger to be tossed.
“We had issues with a couple of bigger batches last year, which is why we required smaller batches this year,” said John Kanta, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City. “Our understanding was that they would be processing in smaller batches. So we’re confused by this. We will be requesting and requiring that the city make changes for next year.”
But Western Buffalo owner Bruce Anderson said those changes will add to the processing costs and won’t be easy to make. He said the economies of scale in processing include effective use of employee time and the need to disinfect equipment in-between handling deer and the regular processing of buffalo, the plant’s main product. Flexibility in lot size of deer is necessary, he said, and sometimes larger lots work better.
Western Buffalo already offers the city a discounted processing price at $80 per deer, compared to $120 the plant typically charges. Anderson said he never knows how many deer will come in each night when city gunners are at work, so being restricted to a small batch each day would leave others waiting to be processed.
“If you’re only doing five a day when are you going to catch this thing up?” he said. “How are you going to manage that? We try to make it as practical as possible, and this is the downside.”
Kanta argued that wasted venison is a major downside that must be addressed, regardless of who handles the processing. And after this, it might not be Western Buffalo.
“Bruce has indicated to us that he can’t do the small batches, so we will likely find someone else for next year,” Kanta said. “Ultimately, that will be up to the city. However, Game, Fish & Parks will require this as a condition of the kill permit.”
If there are additional costs involved in small-batch processing, GF&P will cover those, Kanta said. GF&P already pays to have the animals tested at SDSU.
Currently, funding for processing the deer comes from the city, GF&P, Sportsmen Against Hunger and the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club. The sportsmen’s club gives $1,000, then the city handles processing costs up to 150 deer. Sportsmen Against Hunger handles the processing costs above that.
Sportsmen Against Hunger Chairman Jeff Olson of Rapid City, a past chairman of the GF&P Commission, said directors of the organization wanted small-batch processing this year and are frustrated that it didn’t happen.
“It’s a lot of meat and a lot of money,” Olson said. “But the emphasis is on the meat and the need that’s out there. There really is a need for this venison. And we had to throw a lot of healthy venison away because of one deer.”
The one-pound plastic-wrapped tubes of venison burger are in high demand from those who rely on the food-bank programs for nutrition. Gassen said only about 7 percent of food donations to Feeding South Dakota are meat.
“It’s the cost. It’s expensive, so it’s not readily available,” he said. “And this is exceptionally good because it’s lean. So besides being meat protein it’s incredibly healthy. And we want that.”
But they don’t want it enough to take risks with CWD, which is part of a class of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Along with CWD, they include BSE in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.
There is a clear connection between human exposure to BSE in cattle and a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. But no such cross-species link has been confirmed between Chronic Wasting Disease and prion diseases in humans. Nonetheless, health and wildlife officials say more research is needed. And they recommend that hunters not eat venison from an animal that had CWD or is suspected of having it.
The transmissible spongiform encephalopathies are caused by abnormal proteins called prions that are persistent and difficult to kill. Because of that persistence, animals that die from CWD are typically disposed of by burying. And the venison burger will go to the city landfill, eventually.
Gassen said Rapid City is one of a select number of landfills certified for such disposal “because they bury all their trash.” But for now the frozen meat is being held at the Feeding South Dakota warehouse until all deer shot in the herd-reduction program this year are tested and all results are in.
“I talked to my manager out there, and we just decided to hold the meat in case there is more we have to throw out,” Gassen said. “We want to do it all at once.”
The notion of dumping all that high-quality meat as trash troubles Gassen just as it grates on Kanta and Olson. It also reflects the realities of killing and processing large numbers of deer for a distributed food source while assuring the food is safe to eat.
The city ended up killing 226 deer in the reduction program this winter. GF&P has test results from 220 of those deer, with one positive for CWD. The test results on the remaining six deer will likely be received by late next week, Kanta said.
In 2001, GF&P began testing deer killed in the reduction program along with deer in town that were picked up because they appeared sick. Since then, 13 city deer tested positive for CWD, three of them last year.
The disease is a challenge to wildlife populations that seems to be increasing in the western South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado, as well as parts of other states.
Anderson said he understands the emphasis on testing for CWD but says it would help whoever processes the deer if the time it takes to get them tested could be shortened. Kanta said that’s unlikely, given the requirements of the process. He said a better option might be to use a refrigerated truck to store the deer so they can be processed after samples have been sent for testing and confirmed to be free of CWD.
That’s what Custer does in its city deer-reduction program, he said.
“They are holding all of the deer in a freezer and waiting for test results. They throw out the whole deer that test positive and then process the remaining all at once,” Kanta said. “So one option for Rapid City would be to find someone who will hold them and process like Custer does, or they could rent or purchase a larger freezer to hold the deer.”
Rapid City Parks Division Manager Scott Anderson said city officials are ready to work with GF&P and the sportsmen’s groups to find a solution and prevent such extensive meat losses in the future.
And every pound of venison they save will be one more pound of high-value protein headed for the hungry.
“I don’t know where the conversation leads on the size of those lots. It’s not really for me to get in the middle of,” Matt Gassen said. “We really don’t have any control, other than receiving a product we can distribute. And once we do, we’re just ecstatic.”