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Chronic Wasting Disease

By Daniel Allred

“Ignorance is the cause of fear.”

That might sound a bit like the famous FDR quote about fear, but this expression was actually coined by a Roman philosopher about 2,000 years ago. Despite its ancient origins, this simple observation is still as true as it’s ever been. Uncertainty naturally leads to distress.

Ignorance and uncertainty surely contributed to the fear that currently surrounds chronic wasting disease, or CWD for short. This infectious deer-based disease has rattled archery and hunting communities, and that’s largely because there are so many questions about it that have gone unanswered.

The tides are changing, though, and the mystery behind CWD is being steadily unraveled. This is thanks to numerous experts, organizations, companies and government agencies that have invested a countless amount of time and energy to shed light on CWD and combat its spread.

The archery industry is a key player in the fight against CWD. After all, nothing could really hit home harder for us than a disease that affects deer populations. More specifically, the historic scent-maker Tink’s has been one of the most vocal figures in the investigation. Tink’s is also adamantly not in this fight alone, and the company has joined forces with other urine-based scent manufacturers to provide answers and peace of mind to the bowhunting public.

Tink’s and its partners understand the seriousness of CWD, but they have also proven that by dispelling ignorance, you can dispel fear as well.

Chronic Wasting Disease

Competitors Joining Forces

At this year’s ATA Trade Show, a few dozen of the industry’s top writers and media personalities gathered in a large conference room to learn about the latest information on CWD. 

Four men shared a table at the head of the conference room, ready to present their findings to eager listeners. Those four men were Phil Robinson of Tink’s, Sam Burgeson of Wildlife Research Center, Steve Lambeth of Code Blue and Dr. Davin Henderson—a well-known researcher and expert on CWD.

Few things are more rare in the business world than competitors coming together to work towards a common goal, but this is exactly what took place at this conference. Tink’s, Wildlife Research Center and Code Blue have been competitors for years, but the companies’ leaders put that aside for the greater good.

One of the key motivating factors behind this partnership is simple: The urine-based scent industry was heavily impacted by the implications of CWD. Some states banned the use of these products in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, but it turns out that the science doesn’t support this decision.

Before we get to that, however, let us first cover the basics. 

Chronic Wasting Disease

What We Know About CWD

CWD was first recognized in 1967 at a research facility in Colorado. The name “chronic wasting disease” is derived from the observation that infected deer were wasting away, losing weight steadily until their death.

CWD affects the brain and nervous system of deer, and it is designated as a “prion disease,” which is a somewhat unique phenomenon in the medical world. A prion is a malformed protein, and it is the infectious agent that causes CWD. Its name is a combination of the words “protein” and “infection.”

Unlike other infectious agents like viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, a prion is native to the body and brain. It is a protein in an animal that has “gone rogue” by folding itself into a shape that causes damage to the brain and body it inhabits. Prions prompt other proteins in the body to form into the same shape, causing the infection to gradually worsen.

One of the most troubling aspects of CWD is its ability to jump from deer to deer. Once a deer is sick, it has the potential to infect other deer, continuing the chain reaction by turning more normal proteins into deadly prions. 

When a deer dies from CWD, its carcass contains an abundance of prions—which are mainly located in the brain, spine and lymph node of the animal. These prions can contaminate the environment and potentially get other deer sick. When a CWD-infected deer is still alive, prions have been found in its muscle tissue, blood, saliva, feces and urine.

Correcting Misconceptions 

That last item, urine, is exactly what brings us back to Tink’s and the other urine-based scent manufacturers. Concerned observers read a simple sentence much like the one above, which pointed out that prions can be detected in urine, and without much further inquiry, certain state governments began outlawing deer-urine products.

Phil Robinson, president and CEO of Tink’s, described the initial chain of events like this:

Chronic Wasting Disease

“We’ve been heavily involved with CWD research since the first state banned the use of natural urine several years ago,” Phil Robinson explained. “Seeing your product get banned obviously gets you pretty energized, and we immediately got very serious about this problem. When we looked into it, we saw that the states were referencing scientific studies, which stated that CWD could be detected in urine. That made us question our own products. The last thing we wanted to do was sell products that risked spreading CWD, so we contacted the lead authors of those studies that the states were referencing. We went straight to the horse’s mouth to hear their opinion, because they were the authority on the subject.”

Dr. Davin Henderson was one of the leading scientists behind some of those studies. Dr. Henderson holds a PhD in biochemistry, and he spent 8 years of his career working at Colorado State University, the leading research facility for CWD in the country.

Dr. Henderson became closely involved with the urine-based scent industry after receiving that call from Phil Robinson.

“I had been working on chronic wasting disease for a while, and I published a few papers on it,” Dr. Henderson said. “One of those papers was about detecting prions in urine, and at the time, I actually had no idea that there was a whole industry based around deer urine. When Phil called me, he had a lot of questions about my research. He told me about his company’s products, where they come from, and how they’re used. He asked if those products could pose a risk to wildlife, and he asked if it’s something we should be concerned about for the spread of CWD. I said no. The prion levels in deer urine are extremely low, and no deer has ever been infected with CWD from inoculations of deer urine.”

In essence, Dr. Henderson’s research was misinterpreted, and those misinterpretations were being used to pass laws. Seeing this, Dr. Henderson made efforts to present the facts.

“I didn’t think it was fair that my papers were being used to ban these products,” Dr. Henderson said. “Our papers were being misrepresented, and we also weren’t being contacted to answer questions or expand on our findings. If you just look at the papers on the surface, and you take a few phrases, then it might sound like deer urine could pose a risk to deer. But once you drill down and really look at the numbers and you see the levels it would actually take, then it becomes clear that these products aren’t spreading the disease. 

Chronic Wasting Disease

“The urine in these products also comes from deer farms that have never been CWD positive, so it really didn’t make sense that these products were being targeted as a threat,” Dr. Henderson continued. “After hearing from Phil, I wrote some letters explaining this to states that were considering a ban. I also traveled to a few states to sit down and talk with the people making these decisions. All of those conversations have been very productive. It was just a matter of getting the right people in the right room to talk things through.”

Tink’s and its partners have taken a humble and well thought-out approach to correct misconceptions about their products. They’ve also strengthened their argument by working together.

“Deer urine was unrightfully targeted as a means of spreading CWD, and the science just does not support that,” Phil Robinson said. “It’s still been tough, though, because it’s not easy to go to a wildlife agency and try to get them to amend a regulation they proposed to protect deer. Of course, we all want to do everything we can to stop the spread of CWD, but the information that was being used was either taken out of context or being heavily exaggerated. 

“This is also why it was so important for us to work with our competitors, and that’s one of the greatest things about this industry,” he continued. “They might be competitors of ours, but it’s always been easy to start a friendly conversation with them. We knew we had to work together because we needed this message to come from the whole industry, not one particular brand. We aren’t just trying to protect our brand; we are doing this for the good of the whole industry.” 

In terms of specifics, here are some of the particular findings from those studies that involved CWD and urine. With full context, it’s clear that CWD isn’t being spread by urine-based scents.

“One of the studies was conducted on genetically modified mice,” Dr. Henderson said. “The mice were modified to be more susceptible to CWD than a normal mouse, and they were also significantly more susceptible than a deer. The study took 2 milliliters of infected urine, and concentrated it down to the amount you could inject directly into the mouse’s brain. Even under those conditions—with genetically altered mice and concentrated injections into the brain—only one out of the nine mice got sick. Another paper suggested that the feces and urine from a whole infected herd could contaminate the environment, but that’s only when there is a large accumulation of infected feces and urine in a small area over the course of multiple years.

“I’ve tried to help others understand that just because you can detect prions in urine, it doesn’t mean it’s at a level that could be dangerous,” he continued. “Meanwhile, we know that about 1 to 1.5 ounces of saliva is an infectious dose for deer. It’s been shown that you can inoculate deer with infected saliva to spread the disease, and the opposite is true with urine. You would probably need about 10-times more prions in infected urine for 1 ounce of liquid to be infectious, and that entire ounce would have to be directly ingested by a single deer.”

So, what exactly is causing the spread of CWD? 

Unfortunately there is no clear answer to that question. There are, however, some insightful findings from the research of Dr. Henderson and his colleagues. 

“We know that CWD can spread from deer to deer,” Dr. Henderson explained. “That’s been shown in a laboratory situation, and there was also a case in Texas where two CWD-infected deer were sharing a fence line. The only thing those two deer had in common was the fence line, so that suggests that deer can spread the disease just through saliva and nose-to-nose contact. There is also likely another component to the spread of the disease, and that’s when a population of deer with CWD gets established. When their carcasses decompose in the wild, it can create an environmental reservoir of prions that may be spread by scavengers. An infected brain has thousands of lethal doses of CWD—maybe even a hundred thousand lethal doses. That seems to indicate that carcasses are a leading factor.”

A Foundation for the Future

The educational efforts of Tink’s, its partners and Dr. Henderson have been well received, and there is also much more that the industry’s urine-based scent makers have done to further ensure the safety of their products.

The ATA Deer Protection Program is a prime example of this. 

“We wanted to make sure that the facilities that supply us with urine do everything possible to keep CWD out of their farms,” Phil Robinson said. “There are actually thousands of captive deer farms in the United States, and they all are regulated by state and federal departments. We decided to go above and beyond those standard rules and regulations, and this is where the ATA came in. We needed a trusted and respected third party to regulate the program, so we worked with them, others in the industry and disease experts to create additional safeguards that prevent CWD contamination from the outside.”

This program’s strict procedures and spotless record have provided lots of additional peace of mind.

“There are a dozen or less facilities that are part of the ATA Deer Protection Program, and these few facilities produce 95 to 99 percent of the urine sold in the country,” Phil Robinson said. “These are elite operations that we have dealt with for many years, and CWD has never been found at any of the facilities in this program. We have the most stringent requirements in the deer farming industry, and the ATA oversees it to ensure that all these protocols are followed.”

Thanks to all these efforts, many of the states that banned urine-based scents have reversed their decision.

Chronic Wasting Disease

“It’s been a really successful year,” Phil Robinson said. “I want to applaud the wildlife departments of Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana for letting us come in and present these facts. They were great to work with, and they all heard us out and amended their bans. Many of the states we have worked with have either reversed their ban, or at least allowed the sale of products in the ATA Deer Protection Program.”

Another important development in the fight against CWD is the use of something called the RT-QuIC Test, which will provide even more reassurance that these products are safe.

“The RT-QuIC Test is a fairly new test for CWD,” Dr. Henderson said. “The conventional tests for CWD rely on detecting the presence of the prion directly in the brain and lymph system, and they actually aren’t sensitive enough to detect the low prion levels in urine. The RT-QuIC Test is much more sensitive. It amplifies the presence of prions in order to detect them in urine.”

Dr. Henderson has established an independent laboratory to provide this helpful test to the industry’s scent makers.

“These amplification tests have been used in research labs for probably more than 15 years,” Dr. Henderson said. “The same technology is also being used to detect other protein-based diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but the test that I am doing now is the first test of its kind that’s available to detect CWD. There are no commercial tests for CWD in urine besides this one. I am also working on moving this testing technology to other aspects of CWD—like live-animal testing. Eventually, I’m hoping to have a test that hunters can use, so they can send in a sample themselves and get the test results back rapidly.”

Chronic Wasting Disease

Altogether, Tink’s and its partners have proven that they are willing to take every step possible to provide hunters with safe and effective products.

“The RT-QuIC Test was specifically designed to test urine for contamination, and it will verify that there are no detectable levels of CWD in our products prior to bottling,” Phil Robinson said. “This test will provide final confirmation that our products are safe to use and don’t have the risk of spreading CWD. Tink’s and Wildlife Research Center have been doing this test on our products this year, so the products on the shelves right now have been tested. We are also going to roll this out to the rest of the industry and have a full-scale launch in 2020. The products that have received this test will all be identified in a consistent manner, with an RT-QuIC Test logo right next to the ATA Deer Protection logo.”

Conclusion

With all this talk of CWD, it’s easy to lose track of the other incredible things Tink’s has done in its long history. After all, Tink’s was established in 1972—almost half a century ago—and the company has delivered many groundbreaking and effective products over its many years of operation. 

Take the company’s signature Tink’s #69 Doe-in-Rut scent, for instance. This time-tested formula has helped entire generations of bowhunters tag the bucks of their dreams. Tink’s has also upgraded its products with the latest application methods, such as Bag-in-Can technology, where the scent is housed in a bag and the can is then filled with compressed air squeezing the bag.  The result is a spray of 100 percent pure lure, rather than a diluted mixture of scent and propellant. 

Tink’s has also developed effective synthetic scents, ensuring that all hunters have access to the company’s remarkable products—even in the few states that still don’t allow natural urine.

Tink’s efforts in the fight against CWD are ultimately the result and continuation of the company’s long and respected legacy.

“Urine-based scents have been around a long time, and they are an important tradition and tool for hunters,” Phil Robinson said. “Banning these products will not slow down CWD, and this is supported by experts like Dr. Henderson, who authored these studies in the first place. As manufacturers in this industry, all of us care deeply about deer. We all hunt, and we all want to protect our hunting traditions. Down the road, we are going to continue to provide hunters with tools that make them successful in the field. You can always expect Tink’s to be an innovator, and you can also expect us to work with others to preserve hunting. That’s a goal all of us share.”