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NC lawmakers briefed on ‘zombie deer,’ efforts to preserve hunting heritage

Photo by Clayton Henkel

North Carolina legislators weary from two years of COVID learned last week of a new virus-like organism they would need to keep on their radar.

In late 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.

“It creates spongiform brain lesions, and the animal ultimately dies from it,” Adams explained.

Because infected deer often stumble, drool and lose body mass, CWD has been colloquially called “zombie deer” disease.

Brad Howard, chief of the state Wildlife Management Division, told lawmakers North Carolina is now the 30th state where CWD has been detected.

“We’ve been working cooperatively to learn the good things that [those states] did and the bad things that they did,” Howard said.

“We still want this to be a normal deer season. We want to maintain our deer hunting tradition. We need the deer hunters. They need to be partners in this effort.”

Brad Howard

But because of the social nature of wild white-tailed deer, containing CWD will be incredibly challenging.

“It’s a constant drain of deer populations, but you don’t see it. If that deer doesn’t die from something else, like getting hit by a car or a hunter harvesting, it is 100% fatal. It will kill them if they are infected with the prions. There’s no surviving it. There’s no immune response because it’s not a virus, it’s not a bacteria. It’s a misfolded protein. It’s not a living thing; you can’t kill it. It’s scary.”

Howard said a deer can carry CWD for 16 months before it begins to show symptoms.

“Then in another eight months it’s dead.”

Why it matters

Howard told the committee they should consider CWD a slow, permanent disease.

“It is now here in North Carolina. It will not go away. You cannot destroy the prions. They are in the landscape,” Howard warned. “Deer lifespans will be shortened. Future deer populations will change.”

Hunters across the state harvested almost 170,000 deer during the 2020-21 season, a nine percent increase over the previous season.

And each year thousands of pounds of deer meat is donated to hunger relief programs.

Wisconsin has dealt with CWD for 20 years, and they’re now seeing the impact. Hunters see fewer deer. There are less older bucks. Half of the older bucks are infected with the disease. They can’t eat half the deer they kill because they test positive for Chronic Wasting Disease.

“This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow. What we are trying to put into place is the protection for our deer hunting heritage and our deer population as we move into the future.”

Most deer reproduce and replace themselves two to four times over the course of their lifetime. But with CWD, wildlife officials expect shorter life spans, less reproduction and fewer deer on the landscape over time.

As for that one deer that tested positive in Yadkin County, authorities don’t know where the deer got infected or how far the buck may have wandered shedding prions.

Test yes, transport no

North Carolina has had a CWD response plan since 2005, now wildlife officials want to step up their testing.

“We need to test every possible deer we can test in that area. We need to find out where it’s at.  And how far away is it? Is this the hot zone or is the hot zone ten miles away,” Howard said.

Another step in minimizing the spread of the disease is limiting the transportation of deer from the established surveillance areas.

“You can’t move live deer and you can’t move dead deer. It’s proven these prions will reside in the carcasses. If you take a carcass, and you take it somewhere else, you get the meat out of it and you throw the carcass out in the woods, and that deer was infected, and you didn’t know it — you just put prions in Southern Iredell County.”

Howard said they will also try to discourage deer from unnecessarily congregating, another way the disease can jump from one cervid to another.

“We can’t prevent that, but we sure don’t want to help it,” he said.

To that end, wildlife officials plan to prohibit the placement of bait and salt licks to purposefully congregate wildlife inside of the surveillance areas of Yadkin and Surry counties from Jan. 2 – Aug. 31.

Rep. Adams, co-chair of the Wildlife Resources Committee, said it is critical outdoors-men continue to hunt deer.

“What we worry about is if people quit hunting deer, you’ll see an explosion of the population in the short-term. And if that happens, you’re gonna have crop deprivation, you’re gonna have more vehicle strikes. That’s the logic behind keeping the hunters hunting,” Adam cautioned.  “Just give hunters the information they need so they can with some certainty harvest and use the meat.”

“What about deer farming in that area?” asked Buncombe County Rep. John Ager.

Rep. Jay Adams

“There are commercial deer farms for producing venison, but we don’t have an extensive deer farming operation in North Carolina,” Rep. Adams said.

Farmed deer can be raised for meat or antler production, but the hunting of farmed deer is not allowed in North Carolina.

Test before consuming

For those wondering if venison is safe to consume, state wildlife officials advise if hunting in an area where CWD has been confirmed, have the harvested animal tested for CWD and avoid consuming meat from any animal testing positive.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has established self-serve drop off stations across the state where hunters can submit samples for CWD testing. Officials acknowledge that testing results may take several weeks to appear online given the demand on the labs.

The CDC reports that while there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people, it’s prudent to keep prion diseases from entering our food chain.

Deer hunting season with firearms runs mid-October through January 1st.

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NC lawmakers briefed on ‘zombie deer,’ efforts to preserve hunting heritage