BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — Alabama wildlife officials have been able to hold off the introduction of chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer population for years, but it was recently detected in two hunter-harvested white-tailed deer in the northwestern part of the state.
According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the first case of CWD was confirmed in January and the second was detected in March. Both cases were found in Lauderdale County, which is situated between the Tennessee River to the south and Wayne County, Tennessee, to the north.
“We wish we could’ve put it off forever, but we’re not surprised that it did eventually turn up in our state,” Marianne Hudson, outreach and education coordinator with the ADCNR's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said in a phone call. “The positive detection was by no means a surprise. Of course, it’s not good news, but the news could definitely be a lot worse. We only found two confirmed positive cases at this point, which we will continue to monitor, just as we have been.”
CWD is a neurological disease that affects members of the Cervidae family, which includes deer, elk and moose. It’s in the same group of diseases as mad cow disease and is both infectious and fatal.
The ADCNR held a public meeting in January at the University of North Alabama in Florence, where the state’s deer program coordinator, Chris Cook, put it like this: “All of the deer found in North America are susceptible to it. The disease is always progressive. It’s always fatal. And right now, there is no vaccine or no cure for it.”
According to Cook, CWD is caused by abnormal proteins called prions and is primarily spread by deer-to-deer contact. Symptoms can include emaciation, drooping posture and poor coordination, though deer can also appear normal when infected due to the long incubation period.
The disease is identified through post-mortem testing. The two positive cases were initially identified as non-negative by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, and then sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, for confirmation.
“We have been monitoring for CWD for quite a number of years,” Hudson said. “We will continue to monitor throughout the state, especially in those areas we already know to be affected by this disease.”
Though CWD has been present in other parts of the country for years, its arrival in the South is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the ADCNR, the disease was first identified in 1967 at a research facility in Colorado. In 2018, it was detected for the first time in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Louisiana also identified its first case this year, making it the 29th state in the country to detect CWD.
In response to the recent geographical spread of the disease, a bill was introduced last year in Congress by U.S. Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin that would provide increased federal support for research and management.
For their part, Alabama officials responded quickly when the first positive sample was confirmed in January. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division implemented a management zone, encompassing both Lauderdale County and neighboring Colbert County to the south.
Within the area’s high-risk zone, hunters were required to have any harvested deer tested for CWD during the remainder of deer hunting season, which ended Feb. 10. There were also restrictions placed on the transportation of deer carcasses from the management zone.
“Because CWD has been in other states for a number of years, we’ve had the opportunity to prepare,” Hudson said. “We’ve had a CWD strategic surveillance and response plan in place, and when we detected our first positive, we adhered to the predetermined planned steps.”