North Carolina lawmakers, weary of two years of COVID, learned last week of a new virus-like organism they should keep on their radar.
End of March, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was first detected in a single deer in Yadkin County.
“It’s not a bacteria. It’s not a virus. It’s a prion,” Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba) told members of the House Wildlife Resources Committee on Tuesday.
“This creates spongiform brain damage and the animal eventually dies,” Adams explained.
Because infected deer often stumble, drool, and lose body mass, CWD has been colloquially referred to as “zombie deer” disease.
Brad Howard, chief of the state’s Division of Wildlife Management, told lawmakers that North Carolina is now the 30th state where CWD has been detected.
“We worked together to learn the good things that [those states] did and the bad things they did,” Howard said.
“We still want it to be a normal deer season. We want to maintain our tradition of deer hunting. We need deer hunters. They must be partners in this effort.
But due to the social nature of wild whitetail deer, containing CWD will be incredibly difficult.
“It’s a constant flight of deer populations, but you don’t see it. If that deer doesn’t die from something else, like being hit by a car or a hunter harvesting, it’s 100% lethal. It will kill them if they are infected with prions. There is no way to survive it. There is no immune response because it is not a virus, it is not a bacterium. It is a misfolded protein. It’s not a living thing that you can’t kill. It’s frightening.”
Howard said a deer can carry CWD for 16 months before they start showing symptoms.
“Then in eight months, it’s dead.”
why is it important
Howard told the committee that they should treat chronic wasting disease as a slow, permanent disease.
Hunters across the state harvested nearly 170,000 deer during the 2020-21 season, a 9% increase from the previous season.
And every year thousands of pounds of deer meat are make a donation hunger relief programs.
Wisconsin has dealt with chronic wasting disease for 20 years, and they are now seeing the impact. Hunters see fewer deer. There are fewer older males. Half of older males are infected with the disease. They can’t eat half the deer they kill because they test positive for chronic wasting disease.
“It’s not something that’s going to happen tomorrow. What we are trying to put in place is the protection of our deer hunting heritage and our deer population in the future.
Most deer reproduce and replace themselves two to four times during their lifetime. But with chronic wasting disease, wildlife officials expect shorter lifespans, less breeding, and fewer deer on the landscape over time.
As for this deer that tested positive in Yadkin County, authorities do not know where the deer was infected or how far the male may have wandered excreting prions.
Test yes, transport no
North Carolina has had a chronic wasting disease response plan since 2005, now wildlife officials want to ramp up their testing.
“We need to test every possible deer that we can test in this area. We need to know where it is. And how far is it? Is this the hot zone or is this the hot zone ten miles away,” Howard said.
Another step to minimize the spread of the disease is to limit the transport of deer from established monitoring areas.
“You can’t move live deer and you can’t move dead deer. There is evidence that these prions will reside in carcasses. If you take a carcass and you take it somewhere else, you extract the meat from it and you throw the carcass in the woods, and that deer was infected, and you didn’t know it — you just put prions in south County d ‘Iredel.
Howard said they will also try to discourage deer from congregating unnecessarily, another way the disease can pass from one deer to another.
“We can’t prevent it, but we certainly don’t want to help it,” he said.
To that end, wildlife officials plan to prohibit the placement of bait and lick stones to deliberately herd wildlife inside the surveillance areas of Yadkin and Surry counties from Jan. 2 through Aug. 31.
Rep. Adams, co-chair of the Wildlife Resources Committee, said it was essential that outdoorsmen continue to hunt deer.
“What worries us is that if people stop hunting deer, you will see a population explosion in the short term. And if that happens, you’re going to have private harvests, you’re going to have more collisions with vehicles. This is the logic behind keeping hunters on the hunt,” Adam warned. “You just need to give hunters the information they need so they can with some certainty harvest and use the meat.”
“What about deer farming in this area?” asked Buncombe County Rep. John Ager.
“There are commercial deer farms for venison production, but we don’t have a deer ranching operation in North Carolina,” Rep. Adams said.
Ranched deer can be raised for meat or antler production, but ranched deer hunting is not permitted in North Carolina.
Test before consuming
For those wondering if venison is safe to eat, state wildlife officials advise hunting in an area with confirmed chronic wasting disease, having the harvested animal tested for chronic wasting disease and avoid consuming meat from any animal that tests positive.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has set up self-service drop-off stations across the state where hunters can submit samples for CWD testing. Officials acknowledge that test results can take several weeks to appear online given the demand from labs.
The CDC reports that although no cases of CWD infection have been reported in humans, it is prudent to prevent prion diseases from entering our food chain.
Deer hunting season with firearms runs from mid-October to January 1st.