With the nation focused on the coronavirus, very little has been heard about the status of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Alabama.
Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, has some cautious good news about the spread of CWD in the South.
“Despite what you read on Facebook, just because COVID-19 hit, CWD didn’t go away,” Sykes said. “We just haven’t been talking about it as much. We’re still taking samples. We had a target of about 1,630 samples last year, and I think we took nearly 1,700, covering all counties, with no positives.”
Last year, Mississippi and Tennessee reported new positive CWD tests. That cautious good news is the infections are not spreading toward Alabama.
“Right now, we’re staying basically status quo from last year,” Sykes said. “It looks like the cases in Tennessee and Mississippi are moving northwest. We have no new zones, nothing any closer than what we had last year. And nothing has tested positive in Alabama, so we’re on the same protocol as we were on last year.”
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info and scroll down the page to view the Alabama CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan, which establishes a CWD Management Zone around the location of a CWD positive deer and implements specific response protocols dependent on the distance from the CWD positive. Positive deer in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, and Hardeman County, Tennessee, have prompted a response affecting Alabama’s surveillance activities. Portions of five counties in Alabama – Colbert, Franklin, Lamar, Lauderdale and Marion – are within 50 miles of those positives. Sampling and testing for CWD have been increased substantially in those counties.
CWD has only been shown to affect members of the deer family, including whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou. CWD is a fatal neurological disease, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which causes lesions on the brain. As the disease progresses, the affected animal will develop holes in the brain and eventually die. Infected animals may be infected for 5 years or longer before they exhibit symptoms.
The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. The disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming borders in the next 30 years. In the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to captive elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada. CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. South Korea, Finland, Norway and Sweden also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of captive deer from infected facilities in Saskatchewan. Over the past 20-plus years, the movement of live cervids or infected carcasses by humans has contributed significantly to the increased spread of the disease.
Regulations that banned the importation of live deer into Alabama have been in effect for many years. The regulations were amended a couple of years ago to prohibit the importation of deer carcasses from all states and countries. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd for regulations about importing deer parts from out-of-state.
Regulations allow for the importation of certain parts of the deer but not whole carcasses. Permitted parts include:
Meat from the family Cervidae (white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, fallow deer, red deer, sika deer, caribou, reindeer, etc.) that has been completely deboned
Cleaned skull plates with bare attached antlers, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
Unattached bare antlers or sheds
Raw capes, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
Upper canine teeth, if no root structure or other soft tissue is present
Finished taxidermy products or tanned hides
The WFF Enforcement Section has also implemented procedures to intercept the potential illegal importation of deer carcasses into the state with surveillance along state borders in an effort to keep CWD out of the state. The “Don’t Bring It Home” campaign highlights the ban on the importation of deer carcasses.
The disease is primarily spread by body fluids such as saliva, urine and feces. The infectious agent, called a prion, can even survive outside the animal’s body.
No evidence exists at this time that CWD can be transmitted to humans. However, caution is recommended when consuming deer. The prion that causes CWD cannot be eradicated by cooking.
The CDC recommends that hunters who harvest deer in areas with CWD should have the deer tested for the disease before consuming the meat. If the test comes back as CWD detected, the CDC recommends the proper disposal of the venison. That venison should not be thrown out by the individual; rather, contact a WFF official or enforcement officer who will ensure its proper disposal.
Last year, WFF set up self-service stations with freezers for hunters to drop off deer heads for sampling and testing. At the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head with 4-6 inches of neck attached. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head. Hunters will then place the head in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. They will need to complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag and attach the tag to the bag with a zip tie. Hunters should remove and keep the Biological Sample Receipt located at the bottom of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer. All materials needed to drop off a sample are provided at each freezer location. Hunters can check the results of their test by visiting www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling-results and entering the six-digit number found on the Biological Sample Receipt.
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling for an interactive map of self-service locations throughout the state.
“We were a little disappointed about the number of samples dropped off at the self-service freezers last year,” Sykes said. “Hopefully this year it will be better. We’ve got good relationships with a lot of hunting clubs, processors and taxidermists that are helping us. A lot of our DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) participants are helping us. But it would be nice to get more random samples from the public.”
In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) to purchase equipment to perform CWD testing. The equipment is housed at ADAI’s Thompson Bishop Sparks Diagnostic Laboratory in Auburn. The equipment and technician have been certified to test for CWD by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.
To assist with these efforts, WFF recently created the Sick Deer Report. The public can report deer acting abnormally or a deer that has died for no apparent reason at www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-related-diseases/report-sick-deer or by calling one of WFF’s district offices. Reports should include contact information for the person making the report, location of the deer and the symptoms observed. A member of the WFF staff will follow up to determine what may have caused the illness or strange behavior and see if the deer should be tested for CWD. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunter-resources/law-enforcement-contacts for information on the five WFF district offices.
Research into CWD received a significant boost recently when the U.S. Congress passed America’s Conservation Enhancement Act. Included in that legislation is the creation of the National Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.