Deer without tags on Pouch Camp lawn. (Staten Island Advance/ Jan Somma-Hammel)
By Tribune Media Services
It’s inevitable that a disease that is always fatal to whitetail deer will spread to Alabama, a top state conservation official says. And the effects it will have economically, culturally and even medically is unfathomable.
Chronic Wasting Disease is likely “three to five years,” from showing up in the state, said Chuck Sykes, director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Hunting generates a $1.8 billion annual economic impact in Alabama, according to the Hunting Heritage Foundation.
And whitetail deer are the most popular game animal in the state, according to the state conservation department. Firearms deer season opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 10.
And the doomsday scenario has an unlikely culprit: hunters themselves.
“I am confident that the only way Chronic Wasting Disease will get to Alabama is it will be brought here,” Sykes said. “It will be that negligent, uncaring hunter who harvests a deer out of state and doesn’t take the time to properly handle the carcass. And once it gets here, we can never put that genie back in the bottle. It will have unforeseen impacts on a multibillion dollar industry, not only economically but culturally.
“When we get that first positive, all our efforts of prevention will shift to mitigation. I’m not saying this to scare people. But the facts are the facts. We have to educate the public on just what we are facing. The steps to prevent the spread of CWD are effective. But all it takes is one person not to follow them.”
Sykes’ position is “disturbing,” said Randy McGhee, a Prattville hunter.
“Damn,” he muttered Wednesday night while shopping at the city’s Bass Pro Shops, getting ready for opening day. “That’s some of the the worst news you can hear.”
CWD is a 100% fatal, highly communicable neurological disease that effects cervids — deer, moose and elk. The pathogen that causes the disease, an abnormal prion — or protein — can be found concentrated in the brain, spinal cord and bone tissue well after the infected animal has died, according to the Centers Disease for Disease Control and Prevention. Animals spread the disease through physical contact with infected animals. It is spread through saliva, feces, urine and other fluids, as well as areas where contaminated animals have been.
There is no cure or vaccine for the disease, and there no known cases of humans getting it, according to the CDC. However, the CDC and conservation officials urge people not to consume venison from sick animals or animals showing symptoms of CWD.
The risk for humans getting the disease is there. In a February report on CWD published in USA TODAY, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, testified in a hearing before the state’s legislators.
“It is probable that human cases of Chronic Wasting Disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” he said. “It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”
In the news media CWD has been dubbed the “zombie deer disease.”
It’s an insidious malady, signs are not typically seen until the animal is 12 to 18 months old, and it may have an incubation period as long as four to five years, according to the United States Geological Survey. It stupefies its victims, attacking the brain, causing them to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose balance and bodily functions, become weak and die.
The disease exists in 26 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the USGS’s National Wildlife Center in Madison, Wisc. The closest states to Alabama with confirmed cases of CWD are Mississippi and Tennessee, with those cases being in free ranging deer. The disease has been confirmed in Hardeman and Fayette counties in southwestern Tennessee and Pontotoc County in northeastern Mississippi. The counties are not contiguous to Alabama, but are within 50 miles of the state line.
“CWD was first discovered in Colorado in 1967,” Sykes said. “And for 30 years it stayed within those 16 counties. Then all of a sudden it showed up in New York and Saskatchewan. It didn’t get there because deer were moving around. It got there because it was brought there. And now it’s exploded to 26 states.”
It has been illegal to import live deer to Alabama since 1973. Alabama has been testing deer for CWD since 2001, and since then more than 8,000 deer have been tested with no positive results. Northwestern Alabama counties, those closest to the CWD positive sites in Mississippi and Tennessee are being targeted for closer scrutiny and more testing. CWD symptoms can mimic other naturally occurring sicknesses in the deer herd. Tissue testing is the only way to determine of the CWD is present.
Last year, Alabama banned the importation of carcasses of deer, elk and moose harvested outside of the state unless all the meat has been deboned. Only cleaned skull plates with bare antlers without visible brain or spinal tissue can be brought into the state. Likewise, raw capes with no visible brain or spinal tissue as well as upper canine teeth with no root structure or soft tissue attached can be brought in.
Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides may be brought in. Antlers covered in velvet are prohibited unless that are part of a finished taxidermy project.
With the spread of CWD to Tennessee and Mississippi, Alabama game wardens have been working to check animals coming into the state.
“We stopped six or seven trucks last season with carcasses in the back,” Sykes said.
“They were not deboned and were coming from out of state. To a hunter, they said they knew they were supposed to debone the meat, they knew the reason they were supposed to debone the meat. But they just didn’t bother. One of those carcasses had been harvested in Kansas. So how many states were threatened on that trip?
“Sure, deboning is inconvenient. It’ll take an extra hour or two. But when you consider what’s a stake, what’s an extra hour or two.”
Rules for bringing deer, elk or moose carcasses harvested out of state into Alabama
All meat must be deboned.
Skull plates with clean antlers attached, with all spinal and brain tissue removed from the skull plates, are allowed.
Cleaned capes with all spinal and brain tissue removed are allowed.
Finished taxidermy projects and tanned hides are allowed.
Antlers in velvet are not allowed unless part of a finished taxidermy project.
Canine teeth if the root structure and all soft tissue are removed are allowed.
Alabama has also placed limits this year on urine-based deer scents and lures. Hunters often use the malodorous concoctions thinking it will attract mature bucks. Rumors have been circulating that use of any urine-based products has been banned, but that’s not the case. Scents produced in Alabama can be used. But products from outside the state must be certified as coming from CWD free herds, said Matt Weathers, the state conservation department’s law enforcement section chief.
Hunters should look for the Archery Trade Association’s check mark on the product packaging, or other statements that the product is CWD free, he said.
“Ninety-eight percent of the scents on the market use the ATA’s check mark and are completely legal to use,” Weathers said. “And any synthetic scents, like Code Blue, can be used with no restrictions.”
Weathers advised hunters to keep the original packaging or bottle of the scents available to show game wardens that they are approved for use.
What other states have done
Most of the 26 states in the nation that have CWD also have strong hunting traditions. And after two decades of more, the presence of the disease means a new normal for hunters. CWD was confirmed in Wisconsin for the first time in 2002. The state has issued regulations for processors and taxidermists to properly dispose of carcasses in landfills. Firearms season lasts nine days in Wisconsin, paling in comparison to the 10 weeks of Alabama gun season.
The state has increased the number of permits and uses game department sharpshooters to cull deer in the off season. Deer are also trapped in an effort, along with the culling, to decrease deer numbers and halt the spread of CWD. The state also has carcass transportation restrictions in place that are similar to those in Alabama.
There are 72 counties in the state, with 56 counties either being CWD positive, or contiguous to CWD positive areas and therefore tracked, said Tami Ryan, acting director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Wildlife Management for the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. When the disease first hit, the state saw about a 10 percent reduction in licensed hunters, she said.
But in 2018, those numbers had rebounded with more than 577,000 firearms hunters and 220,000 archery hunters.
“We have dealt with CWD for an expansive length of time,” Ryan said. “We have put several programs in place to slow the spread of the disease. But you can’t get rid of it. In the southern part of the state, CWD is endemic.”
Wisconsin has banned the feeding and baiting of deer, with the logic being the supplemental feeding causes an unnatural concentration of animals and means the disease can spread more efficiently. Two years ago, Alabama changed regulations allowing for the supplemental feeding of deer during the hunting season.
Just to the south of the Badger State, Illinois also saw CWD confirmed for the first time in 2002. The firearms season lasts seven days. High tech and more permits are the approach taken in Illinois. Increased permit numbers are used for carefully controlled localized population reductions, said Paul Shelton, a wildlife biologist with the state’s conservation department. Illinois also uses sharpshooters to cull deer during the season and in the offseason.
Of the 102 counties in the state, 17 are considered CWD positive or in CWD areas of concern. All the CWD positive counties are in northern Illinois, near the Wisconsin border.
“We have surveillance data down to the square mile,” he said. “Our prevalence rate of CWD has not gone up over several years, due to efforts to carefully control harvests and increase harvests in the affected areas. At this point in time the levels we have are considered quite good. We have seen a 1 to 2% increase in areas that are CWD positive.
“It’s not gone away, but we haven’t seen large increases in the spread of the disease that other states have seen. We’re proud of that.”
Back to Alabama, the threat of CWD has wide ranging impacts.
“We don’t want people to stop hunting or stop eating deer meat,” he said. “That’s the worst thing that can happen. I tell people this isn’t a deer problem, or a hunting problem. It’s an Alabama problem. Many people in the state don’t realize what impact deer hunting has. Even if you don’t hunt, the economic benefits are huge. Hunting is very important to the culture of the state.
“We need to do everything we can to protect that resource.”
According to economist Rob Southwick, Alabama hunters spend twice as much each year as the combined annual revenues of the 10 largest companies in the state.
State and local taxes generated by hunting activities in Alabama amount to $104,412,563 each year.
On the national level hunting is a huge economic force as well, amounting to a whopping $38.3 billion. “If hunting were a company, the amount spent by hunters to support their hunting activities would place it No. 73 on the Fortune 500 list,” Southwick said.
Written by the Montgomery Advertiser and distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.