State wildlife officials prepare for deadly deer disease ahead of Georgia hunting season
A white-tailed buck in Gwinnett County is among the 1 million of its deer species roaming Georgia’s woodlands, farmlands and urban areas. Hank Ohme/Georgia Wildlife Federation
Georgia conservationists are putting hunters on high alert about the possibility of a deadly deer disease crossing the state border after the discovery of a case in north Florida.
The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division will carry out an emergency response once the state has its first detected case of Chronic Wasting Disease. It can take as long as two years before an infected white-tailed deer shows zombie-like symptoms of listlessness, droopy head, severe weight loss, repetitive walking and drooling.
In June, a road-killed doe found 38 miles from Georgia’s southwest border made Florida the 31st state to report a confirmed case of a condition that has no treatment or vaccine and always results in death of the infected deer, moose and elk.
Public health and state wildlife officials are conducting a public awareness campaign to inform hunters and others how to react if they see deer in an area with the disease, which is similar to the affliction known as mad cow disease that spread in the 1990s.
The strategy for Georgia’s wildlife division is to establish a 5-mile radius where there is a confirmed presence of CWD, with the boundaries shifting as more infections are discovered.
An outbreak can present more challenges for game hunting inside the infected zones.
Hunters in the affected areas are being recommended to get their deer and buck carcasses tested so the wildlife agency knows the location of the outbreak and what percentage of animals are infected.
Scientists have not found any evidence that deer wasting syndrome can spread to humans or livestock under normal conditions. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn against eating the venison from CWD-infected animals until the health risks are better understood.
Prior to eating deer meat, hunters are also advised to store their venison in the freezer and wait to see if test results come back negative. The public is also encouraged to report roadkill deer and deer displaying unusual behavior to their local wildlife district office.
“There will be a response plan that goes in place that is geographic,” Wildfire Resources Division Director Ted Will said at a recent Board of Natural Resources meeting. “It’s a 5-mile radius, intensive sampling within one mile and hunters are probably bringing (deer) heads to (service drop off) sites. We’ve got it all laid out.”
The biggest defense to mitigate the spread in the earliest stages of detection involves intensive testing and limiting the movement of deer to other places. The long-term affliction can only be diagnosed by examining the animal’s brain after its death.
Lindsay Thomas Jr., spokesman for the National Deer Association, said that since it takes so long for deer to show symptoms, it is difficult to persuade hunters that it is a problem.
“The people who are in denial about this will say ‘I don’t see a problem. This isn’t something to worry about,’” he said. “That’s the way it works. You don’t walk in the woods and see sick and dead deer laying everywhere.”
“The message we give hunters is this is not the end of the world. It’s nothing to panic about,” Thomas said. “Hunting goes on in these zones. It’s just a time for hunters to plug in and get informed and participate in the effort to manage the disease locally.”
Georgia has banned the transportation of live deer species from other states since 2005 and has other restrictions on how deer, moose and elk carcasses are handled.
Among the safety guidelines are not moving deer carcasses outside of a designated CWD boundary or leaving them to rot in the wild.
In areas where the CWD exists, public health officials also recommend more stringent deer processing, which involves gutting, skinning and aging meat and removing a white-tailed deer’s head to mount as a trophy.
The tips include not using a bone saw to cut up a deer, wearing latex gloves, washing hands frequently, and for professional processors to prepare each deer meat separately from other animals.
“This is not a bacteria or virus,” Thomas said. “It’s a prion protein and it’s very durable in the environment. If you take the deer to process at home and don’t leave bones, hide, innards in the woods. That’s a hotspot of CWD prions that if healthy deer come in contact with then they can become infected.”
White-tailed deer tops game hunting in Georgia
White-tailed deer are Georgia’s most hunted game, with approximately one million does and bucks roaming the state.
Currently, Georgia has more than 200,000 of licensed hunters who spend time tracking down white-tailed deer that prefer open countryside near creeks and streams, but they can also be found in farming and urban areas.
Nearly 210,000 deer hunters killed more than 257,000 deer during Georgia’s hunting season that ran from September 2021 until January 2022, according to the state wildlife division.
Deer processing tips for Chronic Wasting Disease-affected areas
Don’t shoot, handle or eat deer or elk meat that looks sick, behaves strangely or is found dead (road-kill).
Test the animal for CWD.
During field dressing, hunters should wear latex gloves, bone out meat, and avoid sawing through bones.
Do not cut through the brain or spinal cord or handle these tissues.
People should not eat deer, elk, or moose brains, spinal cords, eyes, spleens, tonsils, or lymph nodes.
Thoroughly wash hands and instruments after cleaning the harvest.
Professionally processed meat should be processed separately from meat from other individual animals.
— Sources: Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Georgia’s upcoming deer hunting season for archers begins on Sept. 10. while hunters using firearms have from Oct. 22 through Jan. 8 to bag up to 12 deer.
Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said that CWD poses a threat to the state’s healthy and stable deer population if not taken seriously enough. The state spent upwards of $300,000 on testing for the disease last year.
“It’s a big deal because virtually all our conservation is paid for by hunters and anglers,” Worley said. “By far the most popular of our game species is white-tailed deer.”
“We have a lot of deer and our deer quality is good,” Worley said. “We have people coming from around the country to hunt, particularly from Florida.”
New protocols for hunters as disease spreads east
Originally reported in the western United States in the 1960s, CWD has slowly spread to the Southeast in recent years leaving Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina as the last states in the region without documented cases.
Chronic Wasting Disease is similar to the fatal mad cow disease that briefly caused a public panic after an outbreak in the United Kingdom during the 1990s that eventually resulted in the first North American case in 2003.
However, in contrast to CWD, mad cow can make humans sick if they eat infected beef.
In addition to being spread by an animal’s bodily fluids, the current threat can also remains highly contagious for many more years in soil and plants.
As part of Georgia’s efforts to minimize an outbreak, lawmakers in 2022 gave the state wildlife officials more power to limit the movement of deer, moose, elk, and caribou carcasses around the state and counties bordering Georgia where positive tests have been confirmed.
Currently, there is no plan by the state to restrict feeders used by many landowners to attract hungry deer near a CWD inflicted area.
“When we have a pop (case), we go into a very small area and try to act quickly,” Will said. “ We don’t want to break relationships with local buy-in and helping us hopefully eradicate it or get it back enough to drive down prevalence in an area.”
Some state wildlife agencies will also look to reduce the deer population within a given area in order to keep the spread of disease to a minimum.
If certain harvesting quotas aren’t met within the deer hunting season, then state wildlife agents might ask for landowners’ permission to go onto their property to hunt more deer, said Thomas, with the deer association.
“It’s kind of a surgical strike,” he said. “Even though it’s a small number of deer, it is ultimately proving useful in maintaining low prevalence rates. Missouri and Illinois are two examples that have used that approach and they’re holding disease prevalence in the low single digits across years.”
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