Now is the time for hunters to stand up for the most popular game animal in the state.
Since August of this year, wildlife biologists with the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) have been receiving calls of sick, dying, and dead deer from several counties. Most of these calls have come from several northern Alabama counties, but WFF staff have also fielded calls from counties in the central portion of the state. Many of these deer have been examined by WFF biologists, and samples for disease testing have been taken from carcasses that were not too far decomposed. Based on the timing of these reports, evidence from necropsies, and results of lab testing, most of these deer were probably affected or killed by hemorrhagic disease (HD).
As reports of sick and dying deer have spread across the various social media platforms frequented by Alabama’s deer hunters, what is normally a fairly routine occurrence for late summer and early fall in Alabama (i.e., HD activity) has turned into a flood of misinformation from “internet experts.” These “experts” have confirmed via Facebook that hundreds of deer have died all over Alabama from a variety of diseases. Hoof and mouth, “blacktongue,” and hoof rot, among others, have all been implicated in the reports, but the two diseases that have been mentioned most often are HD and chronic wasting disease (CWD). About the only thing HD and CWD have in common is they are both diseases that infect white-tailed deer. Beyond that, the diseases are quite different.
HD is a disease caused by one of several serotypes of the epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and bluetongue (BT) viruses. It is endemic to Alabama and the rest of the Southeast, so white-tailed deer native to this region have evolved with the disease. Many Southeastern deer populations, including native Alabama white-tailed deer, have an inherent resistance to the viruses. This means deaths during HD outbreaks in Alabama are usually minimal. Deer populations in more-northern states, as well as northern deer translocated to southern states, are much more susceptible to HD, and deaths in these populations are not all that uncommon. Dramatic, highly visible mortality events caused by HD occur in these areas every few years. In fact, Tennessee and Kentucky have experienced extensive mortalities from HD during the summer and early fall of 2017.
EHD and BT viruses are transmitted by biting midges in the genus Culicoides. HD most often occurs in late summer and early fall since that is the time of year when these midges are most abundant. During other times of the year, the risks of EHD or BT exposure are minimal due to the lack of midges. This is why HD is the first thought when WFF staff receive reports of sick or dead deer in August, September, and October.
Infection by HD does not mean certain death for Alabama’s white-tailed deer. Many deer infected with one of these viruses show no or only mild evidence of being exposed. Others may exhibit more-severe signs, such as depression, fever, respiratory distress, and swelling of the head, neck, or tongue. Some of these animals will die shortly after infection, while most will stay sick longer. Infected deer that do not die soon after infection, most often recover from the disease. These deer develop antibodies to the virus causing the initial infection, which makes them immune to future infections from that same virus.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a whole different animal. CWD is not endemic to the Southeast. CWD was first recognized as a disease syndrome in 1967 in captive mule deer at a wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. It is a fatal neurological disease of deer, elk, and moose that has been classified in the group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). These diseases are believed to be the result of infectious, self-propagating “prion” proteins. Infectious prions are normal cell proteins whose shape has been transformed in such a way that they cause disease. Although considerable research by wildlife health officials is ongoing, the overall biological and epidemiological understanding of CWD remains poor. Chronic wasting disease is closely related to TSEs in other species including Scrapie in sheep, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.
CWD attacks the central nervous system of the deer and presents symptoms including extreme weight loss, excessive salivation, odd behavior, and poor coordination. The disease is infectious, communicable and always fatal. CWD is insidious and has a prolonged incubation period of at least 2 years or longer. Diagnosis must be made by post-mortem testing of specific portions of the animal’s brain (i.e., obex) or lymph node tissue from the throat (retropharyngeal lymph nodes).
To date, CWD has not been detected in Alabama. It has been diagnosed in free-ranging and/or captive cervids in 24 states and 2 Canadian provinces including Alberta, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. CWD also has been detected in South Korea (elk) and Norway (reindeer and moose).
There are two primary sources of exposure to CWD for uninfected deer: 1) CWD-infected deer, and 2) CWD-contaminated environment. Once CWD arrives, it does not go away. The prions which cause the disease can persist in the environment for years. No effective way to sanitize infected facilities, soil, etc. exist.
Since it is not endemic to Alabama, the most likely route for CWD to arrive here is through movement of live deer or certain deer parts from areas where CWD does occur. WFF has taken measures to decrease the likelihood of this happening. It has been illegal to import live deer into Alabama since the early 1970’s and a regulation banning the importation of body parts most likely to carry the infectious prions (i.e., large bones, spinal cord, and brain) from CWD-positive states was put in place in 2016. This brings us to the scariest portion of this article.
Over the last 11 months, Conservation Enforcement Officers of the Law Enforcement Section of WFF have arrested individuals who were knowingly violating both state and federal laws that are in place to protect Alabama’s deer herd. The fact is that Alabama has already been subjected to the two primary sources of exposure to CWD previously mentioned. In November of 2016, Larry Durham of Jackson County was charged with violating the state’s CWD imported carcass ban. Durham had illegally harvested a white-tailed buck in the state of Illinois, a state that is known to have CWD. Durham was observed travelling in Illinois with the field-dressed carcass of that deer visible in his vehicle by another Alabama resident hunting in Illinois. That fellow Alabamian chose to be part of the solution and called WFF with what he had observed. Durham was later found at his residence in Jackson County in possession of the deer that the caller witnessed. No attempt had been made to remove any of the potentially disastrous tissues that could carry CWD from the carcass.
Later that same month, Conservation Enforcement Officers arrested Lewis “Sonny” Skinner and his associate Franklin Loden for unlawfully importing six live white-tailed deer from the state of Indiana. Skinner, who was a commercial deer breeder in Alabama had hired Loden to covertly bring the deer into this state knowingly in violation of the decades-old import ban. This sort of illicit activity based solely on personal profit by those involved in commercial deer breeder activities puts the entire Alabama deer herd at risk, not just those captive herds held by deer breeders. Skinner would later surrender his deer breeder license and plea to fines and restitution totaling $750,000. Tremendous fines such as this underscore what is at stake when just one person knowingly violates a law put in place to protect us all.
The detection of CWD in deer breeder facilities in Texas and that state’s swift mitigation of its spread through the use of their electronic database for tracking captive herds prompted WFF to draft an amendment of this state’s deer breeder regulation. Currently WFF seeks to require real-time traceability of those captive herds so that upon detection CWD can more effectively be contained.
It only takes looking at this one month alone to get an understanding of the grave risk that we who so dearly love the natural resources of our state face. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division leads the fight in protecting those resources today as they have every day for the last 110 years.
In 1908, State Game and Fish Commissioner John H. Wallace Jr. made a very profound statement in 1908 when he said, “Since the State in its sovereign capacity occupies the attitude of guardian and custodian of the people’s welfare, it is therefore the duty of the State, by enactment of appropriate legislation, to endeavor to extend adequate protection to those resources in which the people have collectively a natural right. Wise and discreet individuals who feel no inclination to make assaults on Nature’s store-house should have their rights protected by the enactment of strong laws to restrain the hands of the wanton and reckless, whose vandalism would annihilate every visible thing of fin, fur or feather, to gratify their savage instincts.”
I can’t think of a more fitting comment than that to explain the current state of the Game and Fish agency. It will only take the careless actions of one individual to completely change the course of our state and the natural resources found here. It’s up to all of us as hunters to remain vigilant and watch out for activity that will negatively impact our natural resources. Call 1-800-272-GAME to report any suspicious activity.