Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) catapulted into the world of deer hunters all over the South when an afflicted white-tailed deer was discovered in the Mississippi Delta this past January.
It was the first case so close to Alabama, and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division immediately responded by adding Mississippi to the list of states where special precautions were in effect to minimize the chance of spreading the disease.
At the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in May, WFF asked that the rules regarding the importation of carcasses from members of the cervid family (deer, elk, moose, caribou, etc.) be extended to all states and Canada.
Those rules state that hunters should completely debone the animal and remove and dispose of any brain or spinal tissue from skull plates, raw capes and hides before returning to Alabama. Those skull plates must be free of any brain or spinal cord material. Velvet-covered antlers are also included in the prohibited materials. Root structures and other soft tissue should also be removed from all teeth. Finished taxidermy products and tanned hides are not affected by the ban.
Starting with the 2019-2020 seasons, Alabama will implement a ban on the use of natural deer urine products as well. Synthetic deer urine products are not affected.
CWD is a disease similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that starts to debilitate the affected animal and always results in death.
At last weekend’s Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery, game biologists and law enforcement officers at the WFF booth tried to spread the word about the threat of CWD and how it could change hunting, which is a $1.8 billion industry in Alabama.
The WFF outreach on CWD education will ramp up significantly right away with seminars, billboards and media promotions.
“We are doing our seminar series that will focus on CWD,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes, who travels the state to conduct the seminars. “We are purchasing billboard advertisement up and down our major road systems. We’re also doing some outreach at gas pumps and ice machines at convenience stores in strategic places around the state.”
Sykes said there is so much misinformation in the public square, whether online or around the campfire, that WFF is doing everything it can to ensure people are getting the correct information.
“There are rumors that it is already here in Alabama, which is not true,” Sykes said. “There are rumors that it’s made up; there’s no such thing as CWD. The best one I’ve heard is it’s just a way for the state to make money. I wish they would show me how we’re going to make money when we’re having to move resources and money to help test animals and educate the public. It’s typical anti-government rhetoric that doesn’t have any basis in reality. So, we’re trying our best to get the facts out.”
Sykes said the decision to ban natural deer urine products after the upcoming seasons was done to err on the side of caution.
“We knew that people already had orders,” he said. “We knew stores had the product on the shelf, and manufacturers already had purchase orders. The Board expressed a desire to ban urine products, so we made our recommendation to start the ban in 2019. So, hunters can buy and use those natural deer urine products through the upcoming season, but starting in the fall of 2019, they won’t be able to use them.
“It’s just a precaution. We know the prion (rogue protein) that causes CWD can be found in urine, saliva and feces. That’s just one hole that we can plug. A lot of the facilities that bottle urine are in states with CWD. We just don’t want to take that risk. Granted, it’s not as big of a risk as bringing in a live deer or a deer carcass, but it’s a risk we don’t want to take.”
Most CWD-positive states have experienced a slow but gradual spread of additional cases once the disease is established. However, there have been a few exceptions. Mississippi has tested about 650 deer since that one incident and hasn’t found any other infected deer at this point. Sykes said only one state other than Mississippi, New York, had a confirmed case of CWD in 2005 and no other deer have tested positive since.
“The best thing we can do is to keep CWD out of our state,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We’ve passed the regulations regarding bringing carcasses into Alabama. The best offense is to play good defense to keep it out of Alabama.
“I think a lot of people are getting the message, but we still have a lot of work we need to do. Some people think CWD is so far away that it doesn’t affect us. When it showed up in Mississippi, it put a lot of people on notice that it is a lot closer to us than it had been and that we need to be very vigilant to keep it out of our state by being mindful of what we do.”
Buckmasters founder and CEO Jackie Bushman hunts all over the U.S. and Canada, and he is fully aware of the threat CWD poses.
“I’ve been in Canada where they’ve had CWD and in Montana, and I hope we don’t get it,” Bushman said as crowds filled the Montgomery Convention Center for the annual Expo. “I’m sure the game and fish guys are on top of it. Chuck (Sykes) and his staff are doing a good job of being prepared if it ever does come here. I think people really have to pay attention, especially if you’re going on a hunt out of state, you’ve got to be careful about what you’re bringing back.
“This is something serious for the deer hunters, but also the whole financial part of the hunting industry. It would be devastating to people who sell or lease hunting land, the deer processors and sporting goods stores. It would be across the board in Alabama. But the way I look at it is we’ve got some smart folks that are working on it. Just pay attention to what they say. This is serious, but if we do the right things, we can keep it out of Alabama.”
Speaking of the people who sell hunting land, National Land Realty was one of several companies with booths at the Expo. Former Deputy Conservation Commissioner Curtis Jones now works with National Land Realty and understands the impact CWD could have.
“Right now, hunting land sales have picked up with the improving economy,” Jones said. “If CWD shows up anywhere in the state, the whole state would be affected. The value of property throughout the state would decline.
“So, I don’t have any problems with anything the Conservation Department can do to prevent the spread of that disease. I just hope our hunters and wildlife enthusiasts will read more about it and understand how devastating CWD would be if it got here.”
Andy Whitaker of Wildlife Trends has also tried to increase CWD awareness through their magazine, and he realizes the impact it would have on businesses like the tree nursery he promotes.
“Look what happened up North,” Whitaker said. “They closed whole seasons in places up there. I think it would be devastating for Alabama.
“The thing is people don’t seem to think it can happen here. But, if you remember, people said the same thing about feral hogs. And now, some places are overrun with hogs.”
Other entities are also working to understand CWD and ways to curtail the spread of the disease. The Boone and Crockett Club recently voted to fund more research into the disease. The CWD Alliance (cwd-info.org) provides the latest updates on research and the implementation of rules and regulations related to CWD.
After the deer in Mississippi tested positive for the disease, WFF staff thoroughly reviewed their current CWD Response Plan and revised it to address more recent concerns with the latest available science. The plan will be continually reviewed and updated as new research and scientific information is produced. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd to read the 35-page plan.