By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Deer hunters can rejoice that Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has not been found in Alabama or any of the surrounding states. That, however, does not mean we deer hunters can take that fact for granted.
Currently, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division is revising the strategy that will help WFF officials respond quickly should CWD be detected in Alabama in the future.
CWD is an insidious disease that affects the four members of the cervid family of animals: white-tailed deer, mule deer, Shiras moose and Rocky Mountain elk. The malady, similar to mad cow disease, is caused by a prion that affects the brain, lymph and nervous systems. The disease is always fatal. The animals basically waste away.
In states where CWD has been detected, “hot zones” have been established. It is recommended that animals that come out of those zones be tested for CWD. If the deer tests positive, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises that the venison not be consumed. Captive animals where the disease has been detected are destroyed and the carcasses are carefully disposed of.
Chuck Sykes, WFF Director, said just because Alabama doesn’t have any cases of CWD right now, it’s not time to let our guard down. He has friends who have been directly affected by the disease.
“I have a real good friend in Ohio who is having to deal with it right now,” Sykes said. “It’s basically changed the way they’re having to do business. Since other management duties were starting to suffer a bit on the Wildlife Area due to the collection within the hot zone last year, they decided to hire seasonal positions whose sole purpose is to collect samples from successful sportsmen and women as well as from roadkills within the hot zone.”
“Texas has had confirmed cases in the past year as well.”
The first documented case of CWD was diagnosed in a captive mule deer herd in Colorado way back in 1967. Since then, CWD has been confirmed in 20 states and three Canadian provinces.
Alabama has 207 licensed game breeders, and as a precaution against CWD or other diseases, each facility is required by law to test any deer over a year of age that dies, according to Sykes.
“The vast majority of commercial breeders and hunting-enclosure operators are law-abiding, conservation-minded citizens,” Sykes said. “Much of the information received regarding alleged illegal imports has come from within the industry.”
In addition to the game-breeder monitoring, WFF officials are taking samples from about 300 wild deer per year from sites scattered throughout the state. The sampling involves taking brain tissue and lymph nodes from the head and neck of the deer and sending the samples to a certified lab for testing.
Alabama has had a ban on the importation of deer and other cervids since the mid-1970s. Conservation Enforcement Officers are in charge of monitoring the deer breeding facilities and licensed exhibitors to ensure compliance with current laws and regulations. The Alabama law was recently changed to increase the fine for violations of the importation law to $5,000 per incident.
A recent case illustrates how costly some violations can be. A man from Georgia was prosecuted for importing deer from Ohio to his property in Florida. He also attempted to import deer from Ohio into Georgia but was caught while the deer were en route to Georgia.
The Georgia man pleaded guilty to the charges. He was assessed a fine and required to pay restitution for a total of $1.6 million, a record for game-law violations. He was sentenced to three years of probation and four months of home confinement. His co-defendant pleaded guilty to 12 Lacey Act violations and was sentenced to 21 months in prison with a $125,000 fine and 200 hours of community service.
“This record fine shows all states are looking very carefully at these type of violations and that penalties are very harsh,” Sykes said.
Four cases of CWD were recently confirmed in Texas, where officials are scrambling to track the movements of the affected deer.
“We’re on the front end of this,” Sykes said. “We don’t really know how CWD would impact our deer population. Thankfully, Texas has an accurate tracking protocol of captive deer, so as soon as the first deer tested positive, they could start tracing back where that deer had been and what facilities it had been in. Now, they’re trying to test all of the places that had had contact with the deer.
“Without that methodology in place and the ability to find out quickly and trace all the tentacles of it, Texas would have been in bad shape. Now, they at least know where those deer had been, what facilities they had been in, when the deer had left those facilities and where they had gone. They at least know where to test. Without that protocol, it would have taken years, if ever, to get that information.”
Sykes said WFF officials are testing a system similar to the one in Texas to keep track of Alabama captive deer herds and hope it will be in place soon.
Hunters who spot or harvest a deer that is acting strangely or appears diseased should contact the nearest district office to have a WFF wildlife biologist examine the deer and collect samples, according to Sykes, who said white-tailed deer can suffer from a variety of maladies that can affect behavior and appearance, especially epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD).
“They need to call us and we can have somebody take it and have it tested,” Sykes said. “It could be EHD or a whole host of things. The only way to know is to test it. We see deer every year that have been killed in the state that have evidence of having recovered from EHD. The thing about CWD is the deer never come back from it. It’s 100-percent fatal.”
Hunting in Alabama has an economic impact of more than $1 billion, and Sykes said WFF is doing everything possible to ensure that the deer hunting so cherished in Alabama will not be impacted by CWD.
He is worried that Alabama hunters won’t take the threat seriously since CWD is currently not in nearby states.
“This isn’t the time for the public to be apathetic because this disease could affect more than just hunters,” Sykes said. “Everybody knows somebody who deer hunts or works in an industry that supports deer hunting. It would have a major economic impact, so don’t think it’s somebody else’s problem.”
The most effective defense against CWD or other potentially catastrophic pathogens is a well-involved public who actively report information regarding illegal movement of deer or other wildlife within the state. Rewards for information leading to an arrest and conviction of game-law violators are available through the Alabama Wildlife Federation. Call GAMEWATCH at 800-272-4263 to report such activity.