Hunters help needed to fight Chronic Wasting Disease

Published 9:28 am Saturday, September 30, 2023

VIDALIA — Hunters in the Miss-Lou should submit samples for testing and follow the control area regulations to help fight against Chronic Wasting Disease. Two new coolers for samples were placed in Concordia Parish ahead of archery season opening in Louisiana Sunday. 

It is possible for positive deer in Tensas Parish to swim across the Mississippi River into neighboring Claiborne, Jefferson and Adams County. Positive deer could be walking around in Southwest Mississippi if prevalence rates are low and there has not been enough samples submitted for testing. Hunters in Mississippi can submit samples through participating taxidermists and at freezer locations listed on the MDWFP website. 

Chronic Wasting Disease is a 100 percent always fatal disease in deer and there is no cure or vaccine for it. The disease spreads through infectious prions shed by infected deer in sweat, saliva, blood and other bodily fluids. Environmental contamination of soil persists for a while which could infect other deer through indirect contact while positive deer can infect other deer through direct contact.  

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Ongoing research from Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab found CWD prions in a scrape sampled in Claiborne County. MDWFP commissioners lifted a supplemental feeding ban in Claiborne County last fall which could allow for the disease to spread. 

While no positives have been found in those counties, more samples are needed. Louisiana is early on in the fight against Chronic Wasting Disease and also needs samples from hunters. Fortunately, participation has been strong so far, Louisiana Deer Program Director Johnathan Bordelon said. 

“We know CWD is around and we are all fighting it in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It is certainly present and more widely spread than what has been detected,” Bordelon said. “The earlier you mitigate risk you are able to keep prevalence rates low. The only way to find the disease is if you get lots of samples. It is the prerequisite for that. States where they find the disease early on it appears the prevalence increases slowly.”

For example, in Mississippi the first detection of CWD was in Issaquena County in 2018. MDWFP did not find another positive in the Issaquena or Warren County area until 2022 when two positives were confirmed.

Louisiana has found 12 positive deer, all located in Tensas Parish. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have placed mitigation measures in place to slow the spread through the ban of supplemental feeding and the moving of carcasses outside of the control zone. Portions of Tensas, Madison, Franklin and Concordia Parishes are in this CWD control zone. 

“CWD will never be at a lower level than it is right now,” Bordelon said. 

Hunters can help fight against Chronic Wasting Disease by mitigating risk of congregating deer, submitting samples and thinning the deer herd. A lower deer density helps slow the spread. 

Why CWD is a concern 

Center for Disease Control states there are no known effects of CWD on humans but advises caution. Chronic Wasting Disease is more of a natural resource concern. Arkansas is struggling with fawn recruitment in the northern region of the state and seeing more deer die directly from Chronic Wasting Disease. As a result, deer management has changed to thinning the deer herd to slow the spread of the disease rather than growing bigger antlers. 

Mississippi has seen the disease increase in prevalence in Benton and Marshall Counties. Biologists are concerned in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. All three states are in different stages of fighting the disease. Bordelon said they hope to maintain a low prevalence of the disease. Other states have seen the disease grow exponentially over time. 

“We are reliant on surveillance. Early on, hunters might think it would be advantageous to not know about the disease so they can keep doing practices they are used to doing. Unfortunately, practices like feeding spreads disease at an accelerated rate,” Bordelon said. “CWD will eventually be detected. There will be signs of the disease with mortality on the landscape and deaths exceeding recruitment. A not healthy deer herd means the age structure drops. You rather harvest healthy deer and hope the herd has a better chance of staying healthy.” 

It is hard to tell if a deer has Chronic Wasting Disease with physical symptoms not showing up until a year to 18 months after it has been infected. By then, the deer could have already shed prions and infected other deer.

Arkansas reduced antler restrictions in a hope to harvest more deer and reduce the deer density to slow the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. A preliminary study on CWD and mortality rates in deer there has shown a majority of positive deer actually die from CWD than anything else. If you factor in hunters, car accidents and natural predation it can greatly reduce the deer herd quantity and quality. 

Louisiana has a healthy deer population in terms of quantity. 

 “We have trended up in harvest. Our age structure is holding,” Bordelon said “We aren’t under a decline. They are still harvesting plenty of deer.” 

Drought concerns

Natural events such as a drought could cause interactions between deer to increase. Water sources such as ponds or puddles could become congregating areas for deer as water availability drops on the landscape. Bordelon said rivers, lakes and streams are likely not a concern. Deer are likely to not congregate in the same areas on bigger waterways and thus putting them less likely at risk of infection. 

“It’s nothing we can control. There is a concern but it is certainly not the level of contact and congregation you would have at a mineral or feed site,” Bordelon said. “It is unknown of the Mississippi River being low will alter their behavior and movement and how it feeds into the transmission of the disease. We plan to put collars out in a four to five year research project along the river starting in 2024 with the University of Georgia. It would be great for an environmental event where you can learn real time data like this year.” 

He said the goal of the cooperative project with UGA is to become better informed about deer behavior along the river.