Stopping a killer
Officials fear chronic wasting disease may be spreading in deer across the Southeast
Atlanta, Georgia — Two Louisiana men, who plead guilty to smuggling diseased white-tailed deer into Mississippi, were recently sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay $140,000 in fees and fines. The punishment sent an unmistakable message that law enforcement and conservation agencies take very seriously the threat chronic-wasting disease (CWD) poses to the South’s deer and deer-hunting industry.
Their fears are well-founded.
A sickly white-tail tested positive for CWD near Tupelo in early October. It was the second wild cervid confirmed carrying the deadly disease in the Magnolia state. Neighboring states to the west, Arkansas and Missouri, in particular, had previously tallied hundreds of CWD cases.
Is the deer-crippling disease spreading into the Southeast? Will the new hunting season bring a manifold increase in CWD-infected deer?
William T. McKinley, the deer program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, expects more CWD discoveries in the Delta this fall.
“I would be shocked if we only had these two,” McKinley said by phone from Kosciusko, Mississippi. “These deer died of CWD. The first deer was tested and retested and notched the highest possible CWD score. He was contagious for well over a year. I’m not confident we won’t find others.”
State and federal conservation and law enforcement officials are newly vigilant about the spread of CWD. They’re testing dead deer for CWD in record numbers, banning transportation of carcasses and some body parts across state lines, imposing feeding bans and boosting CWD education and outreach.
“Hunters are much more aware,” said Mike Rich, who manages the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His seven Mississippi refuges, so far, haven’t notched a single CWD case.
“There will be a lot of deer tested,” he continued. “We always rely on hunters to tell us about sick animals. But the state has the lead; we’re just the landowner. We’ll help any way we can.”
The disease spreads east
CWD is what’s known as a prion disease, a rare, transmittable illness that causes proteins in the brain to fold, harming the central nervous system of animals and humans. It’s similar to scrapie in sheep or mad cow disease in cattle.
“CWD is fatal to animals and there are no treatments or vaccines,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Cervids — white-tailed deer, elk, mule deer, sika deer, moose, and reindeer — are highly susceptible. CWD can incubate for years while the animal sheds prions via blood, sweat or urine infecting the environment and, potentially, other animals.
Humans haven’t fallen prey to the disease, the CDC says. Yet studies show risks to monkeys who were fed meat from CWD-infected animals. The World Health Organization recommends keeping diseased, prion-related agents from entering the human food chain.
CWD was first found in Colorado in an enclosed mule deer pen in 1967. It was discovered in wild deer 15 years later. It is estimated that 17 percent of Colorado’s deer population is infected. CWD spread slowly at first across northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. Today, though, free-ranging deer with CWD have been found in 25 states, mostly in the West and Midwest, as well as Canada, Norway and South Korea.
Infection rates among wild deer, in known diseased areas, may exceed 10 percent, the CDC reports. Yet infection rates among captive deer populations may be considerably higher — 79 percent in one herd, for example.
Biologists and wildlife officials consider the illegal transportation of deer across state lines — to so-called captive animal facilities — the main culprit in CWD’s spread. Seven people have been convicted of violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the interstate movement of certain species, in Mississippi alone since 2013.
Edward Donaldson Jr., 75, and John Oertling, 42, were sentenced in September for conspiring to smuggle white-tailed deer into Mississippi. Each received three years probation and a $10,000 fine and were prohibited from hunting for one year. Turkey Trot, their thousand-acre, high-fenced hunting property in Forrest County, will be quarantined for one year with Donaldson and Oertling paying $120,000 to test the enclosure for CWD.
The Louisiana men admitted to state and federal investigators that they smuggled dozens of deer from a CWD-positive facility in Pennsylvania. All because certain hunters are willing to pay big bucks to shoot big-racked deer.
Luis Santiago, special agent in charge in the Southeast, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “considers the potential spread of disease caused by the illegal commercialization of wildlife resources a high priority.”
So too does Jennifer Ballard, the wildlife veterinarian for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Arkansas was the first southern state to discover CWD in the wild nearly three years ago. Ballard says 358 deer and 14 elk have tested positive for the disease in the state’s northwest region with two new cases reported in late September.
“CWD, as a disease, moves very, very slowly,” she said. “We’re still getting a handle on where it is. We expect it to spread over a long period of time, but it’s a bit early to say when and where. We consider CWD a threat to the stability of our cervid population and we take it very, very seriously.”
Ballard and McKinley don’t believe an Arkansas-infected deer wandered 300 miles to central Mississippi and infected the first deer last January. It remains unknown, though, how the 4-year-old buck ended up with CWD. A hunter in a stand reported the sickly 96-pound deer to state wildlife officials. A DNA test linked the deer genetically to others in the southern Mississippi or northeastern Louisiana delta.
Mississippi officials continue tests on the infected deer discovered October 8 in Pontotoc County. They’ll soon determine what, if any, precautionary measures to take to fight CWD in northern Mississippi. A resident shot the 1½-year-old buck after he behaved strangely around a dog.
Mississippi imposed a series of concentric-ring, disease-prevention and testing zones around the spot in Issaquena County where the first deer was discovered: a 5-mile containment zone; a 10-mile high-risk zone; and a 25-mile buffer zone. The wildlife agency had tested 1,200 deer, most within the buffer zone, by late September. (Louisiana has also sampled deer on their side of the Mississippi River.) None have turned up positive for CWD. Mississippi plans a total of 5,000 tests statewide this year — the highest amount ever.
As deer season unfolds, vigilance is the watchword. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recommended in September a prohibition on the transportation of cervids; the importation from any state of cervid carcasses; and the baiting or feeding of any cervids.
Southern states largely adhere to AFWA’s guidelines, yet they also offer exceptions and, in some cases, more detailed hunting and deer-handling rules. Arkansas, for example, has increased the seasonal bag limit to five deer within its CWD management zone and removed any antler-size restrictions. Missouri requires hunters in its management zone to bring the deer or its head, with at least six inches of neck, to a designated CWD sampling station during the November 10-11 opening weekend for modern firearms.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” said Mississippi’s McKinley. “So, in a nutshell, we’ve got to figure out what we’re dealing with. Our dead deer could just be an ember. Maybe there’s a whole brush fire beginning somewhere else.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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