Do zombie deer predict a Texas hunting apocalypse? It could be decades before we know. Yet the rise of the chronic wasting disease — colloquially known as “zombie deer disease” because it infects the brains of deer, essentially turning them undead — is so alarming that Parks Department officials and Texas Wildlife are testing deer road kills across the state and tightening regulations on commercial deer ranchers in an all-out attempt to slow the spread.
There is no cure for chronic wasting disease or CWD. The condition of the nervous system is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep and goats, and it is always fatal. Infected deer can quietly spread the disease for two years before symptoms even appear. While deer in the later stages of CWD often appear emaciated and behave erratically, infections leave animals so weakened and vulnerable to predators that they usually die before external symptoms manifest, making the spread disease that is difficult to control.
“We’re talking about an insidious disease,” said Mitch Lockwood, TPWD’s big game program manager. “It’s slow. It’s not easy. But it’s never dormant.
Although wild deer are also afflicted with CWD, Lockwood said the disease spreads faster through deer ranching facilities, which keep animals in relatively close confines and often move them much greater distances. than they would have traveled by traversing the landscape under natural conditions. conditions.
People who raise deer for hobby or profit (and who tend to have tall fences and deep pockets) aren’t too happy with the increasing regulatory demands placed on their industry. From TPWD emergency rules took effect at the end of June, more than 10% of the nearly 1,000 deer farmers in the state have left the business, and another 10% plan to do so, said John True, president of the Texas Deer Association, a non-profit group that advocates for the deer ranching industry.
Unlike a variant of mad cow disease, CWD cannot be transmitted to humans, which means it is harmless (until there) to eat the venison of an infected deer. Hunters, however, are required to bring their harvest to a TPWD checkpoint within two days if the catch occurred in one of the seven CWD areas, which are scattered throughout most of the state except for southeast Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. (The regular white-tailed deer hunting season in Texas short to January 2 in the northern zone and to January 16 in the southern zone.)
Chronic wasting disease is transmitted through bodily fluids, feces and carcasses, and is caused by a strange little protein called a prion, which triggers the abnormal folding of other proteins in the central nervous system. The chain reaction of misfolded proteins slowly destroys the brains of white-tailed deer, mule deer and other members of the deer family, such as elk and moose. Wildlife biologists don’t like the nickname “zombie deer disease,” with its B-movie connotations. TPWD press. “They drool and stumble instead of being a zombie-like creature.” Left unchecked, the disease spreads from deer to deer, reaching a critical point when around 15% of a herd is infected. “That’s when it really starts to snowball,” Lockwood said.
Discovered in 1967 at a government research facility in Colorado, CWD has spread to half the United States and four Canadian provinces. He reached Texas in 2012, first in a herd of free-roaming mule deer in the Hueco Mountains near El Paso, then in a breeding center in southern Texas three years later. He was soon discovered in several other breeding facilities. In the nine years since the disease arrived here, CWD has been detected in 270 animals; nearly three-quarters were white-tailed deer in captive breeding facilities.
This spring, wildlife scientists found a new cause for concern. For the first time in northeast Texas, a white-tailed deer has tested positive for CWD at a breeding facility in Hunt County, about fifty miles northeast of Dallas. Nine other cases have been traced to a farm in Uvalde County, one hundred miles west of San Antonio. After further testing, a total of at least 30 infected deer were found at six facilities, 25 at the Uvalde operation alone.
Neither Uvalde nor Hunt County farms had imported deer in recent years – they were both considered ‘closed herds’ – so the vector by which CWD spread there was a mystery. According to True, ranchers who purchased infected animals from the Uvalde farm were forced to kill not just those deer, but their entire herds – hundreds of captive does and bucks, culled as a precaution.
“When there’s CWD detected on your farm, it’s a total wipeout,” said True, the owner of Big Rack Ranch, a two-thousand-acre ranching operation about an hour east of Dallas. According to True, around 10,000 captive deer have been killed because CWD was found in their enclosures. Some, he said, bred males worth as much as $250,000.
The losses of all those white-tailed deer ripple through the state’s rural economies, he added. From vet bills to feed costs, the association estimates that Texas deer ranchers contribute directly $350 million in economic activity every year.
Deer ranchers have often clashed with regulators and conservationists who prefer to let white-tailed deer roam naturally. True presents the tightening of CWD regulations as a new front in this fight, arguing that his industry is seen as a scapegoat by critics from the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife and the wider conservation community. who he says are using the disease as a semblance of destroying the practice of selective breeding of white-tailed deer for massive antlers that fetch high prices. “They wish we were all bankrupt,” he said. (Lockwood counters that the measures are necessary to protect the health of native deer and the hunting industry.)
This summer, deer ranchers across the state were scrambling as hunting season approached. Under Parks and Wildlife emergency orders, ranchers had to test every living deer before it could be moved out of its enclosure and onto a nearby pasture or other property. About 12,000 males were tested at a cost of $300 per animal, True said, resulting in millions of dollars in lost profits across the industry. The weather was hot and some deer died from the stress of being tranquilised, which True described as a necessary step before the deer could be tested. “It’s hard, and it’s expensive,” he said. Of those $12,000 tested, only one had CWD, according to TPWD’s Lockwood. (The Texas Deer Association maintains that the infected deer would have been detected under previous testing requirements.)
Is chronic wasting disease under control? The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission thinks not. In November, the commission further tightened regulations for deer ranchers, as first reported by the Houston Chroniclewho has tightly covered the Chronic wasting disease outbreak and continued response from TPWD. Breeding facilities are now required to test every deer that has reached at least one year of age before it can be released or transported out of its enclosure. Additionally, every deer that dies in captivity must be tested for the disease, compared to 80% of mortalities that previously had to be tested. And the Trapping, Transport and Transplant License Program– an initiative that allows deer and other game to be captured on properties where they are overcrowded and then moved to different properties – has been temporarily suspended.
True said the new regulations are unnecessary. He wants to overturn emergency orders and limit testing to every captive deer that dies a year or older. Lockwood, for his part, argues that the widespread testing and culling of captive deer exposed to CWD is the price Texans must pay to protect their mule deer and white-tailed deer, which, as native species, belong to the public, regardless of whose enclosure they are. confined again. Not that either party will be calling for a vindication anytime soon.
“The sobering idea is that it may be fifty years before we realize the consequences of our actions or inactions in the face of this disease,” Lockwood said, saying the uncontrolled spread of CWD will be gradual and subtle, until it suddenly becomes catastrophic. “We often say that it is not a disease for our whole life. It is a disease of the life of our grandchildren.