CWD in the Southeast- What you need to know

-By Andrew Maxwell

On February 9, 2018 a whitetail deer in Issaquena County Mississippi tested positive for CWD, or Chronic Wasting Disease. Most of us Southerners are very unfamiliar with the disease, why its a problem, how it spreads, and why there are such severe ramifications for anyone who breaks laws meant to contain it. CWD is a very serious threat to our lifestyles as deer hunters, so here are a few things you need to know.

1. CWD is not EHD or blue tounge

It is not uncommon for people to confuse CWD with a disease we are more familiar with like EHD. The differences between the two deer killing diseases are vast, and knowing the differences will give you an idea of why CWD is much worse

First and foremost, EHD is caused by a small biting midge (tiny flying insects) that colonize small muddy watering holes. That is why late summer droughts usually bring a dramatic increase of EHD deaths in deer herds across the nation. Water is limited, and deer congregate around small water sources, which are usually muddy, the perfect place for the EHD carrying midges to live. Another important fact about EHD is that is is not always fatal, a deer can contract EHD and live.

EHD can have huge impacts on local deer herds in a single year. There have been cases of EHD killing up to 10% of deer populations in some areas in a single summer. CWD wont wipe out 10% of deer every few years, but it rather chips away at a population over time. According to a study done on CWD by David R. Edmunds and others, 

" One such study was conducted on a mule deer population near Boulder, Colorado, USA [10]. Deer abundance declined 45% during 1988–2006. It was believed CWD had been endemic since 1985 and was highly prevalent (males = 41%; females = 20%). The decline was attributed to high prevalence of CWD resulting in low overall adult survival (0.72)."

Read that full study here. In roughly 20 years a deer herd was cut nearly in half by CWD. We may struggle to see its harmful effects now, but in reality it will be those who come after us who have to deal with the consequences of CWD. 


2. What is CWD?

The disease is caused by a malformed pryon, or protien. CWD is very similar to mad cow disease, attacking the brain until it basically turns to mush. The disease is progressive and 100% fatal, with no symptoms showing until the host animal has been infected for around 16 months. 

The disease is most likely spread through bodily fluids like urine, saliva, feces and blood. Because the disease is likely spread through bodily fluids, supplemental feeding, baiting, and mineral licks are all typically banned when CWD is discovered in an area. The area around the case of the CWD positive deer in Mississippi is experiencing that regulation now. Some states haven even gone are far as to ban the use of deer urine out of fear that we could transport CWD in our attractants. 

The prion that causes the disease can remin active in the soil for years, and it can not be neutralized with a conventional controlled burn. It is theorized that plants can absorb the prion, and when a deer eats the plant it becomes infected. 

3. Can it hurt Humans?

Although there have been some studies to show that CWD can have population level impacts on wild deer herds over time, the main concern is human safety when handling, or eating CWD positive deer. 

Although there has not been a case of a human contracting CWD, the CDC warns to limit contact with animals that have possibly been infected. Several studies have been preformed with monkeys who were fed meat from a CWD positive animal, with the end result of the moneys becoming infected. This does not mean it can infect humans, but it certainly raised some eyebrows. Scientists worry that CWD could possibly mutate and be able to make the "species jump" from deer to humans. Although that is extremely unlikely, it is something to keep an eye on. 

If CWD could infect humans, it would be the end of hunting as we know it. If you killed an animal who was CWD positive within 16 month of its infection, youd never know unless you got it tested. If a 100% fatal disease like CWD started infecting us hunters, how many people would still go hunt? How many would still buy hunting licenses? 

4. How to Contain CWD

Transporting dead deer from CWD positive areas is one way the disease spreads from state to state. The spinal column and brain hold the most CWD prions, so transporting an unskinned, uncleaned and unboiled skull from a CWD area is illegal. For instance, when I killed my mule deer in Wyoming (a CWD state) I had to cut the antlers off (I only took the skull cap rather than doing a full euro), bone out all the meat and discard all unused bones and hide in Wyoming. The only things I brought back were a perfectly cleaned skull cap, and boneless meat!

Concentrated food sources like piles of corn or protein pellets, and mineral licks can contribute to CWD spreading within a herd of deer. One deer uses the food source and leaves some bodily fluid behind, like saliva, and another deer consumes it. 

I've heard lots of people say "Well the deer can walk across state lines" when talking about how its illegal to transport whole deer out of CWD states. They are basically saying that the transport laws are useless because deer move naturally on their own, and a CWD positive deer could wander into a new area and infect it. Deer definitely travel, and cross state lines, but the disease is fairly slow moving. Its a different ball game when we create CWD in an area that its never been by transporting dead deer. 


That is some very basic, good to know information about a disease that is a massive problem for us as hunters. Within the next three months, we will go more in depth on CWD with an expert on the Southern outdoorsmen Podcast.