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Alabama aims to stop spread of fatal deer disease after second confirmed case

The state has implemented a strategic surveillance and response plan to thwart chronic wasting disease, a neurological condition that is infectious and fatal.

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.”

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Hudson also credited the hunting community for its adherence to the plan.

“After the first positive case was confirmed in January, we had a large number of hunters submit samples for testing, which enabled us to get a lot of information, and only one more positive was confirmed from that number of samples,” she said.

Now that deer hunting season is over, the ADCNR will continue its testing efforts by collecting samples from road-kill deer. Residents are also encouraged to report any abnormal deer activity and there is a ban on feeding the animals.

“There has been a suspension of using supplemental wildlife feed and baiting within the chronic wasting disease management zone,” Hudson said. “It’s not permitted for folks to be providing supplemental feed for wildlife. That doesn’t apply to birdfeeders if they’re within 100 feet of a building, and it also doesn’t apply to feed that is inside of an active feral hog trap. But within the [management zone], which is Lauderdale and Colbert counties, we’ve asked that citizens don’t feed the wildlife, and that will help prevent the congregation of wildlife into those areas.”

Hudson also stressed the importance of continued adherence to regulations regarding the transportation of deer carcasses.

“We still need hunters to adhere to those rules about carcass import restrictions and making sure that the disease doesn’t spread into new areas,” she said. “It’s been found in one area and we’re going to hopefully see the disease not being detected in other areas.”

In addition to those ongoing efforts, the state may find an unexpected ally in its own geography. According to Auburn University wildlife and ecology professor Stephen Ditchkoff, there may be a benefit to the fact that Lauderdale County is bordered to the south by the Tennessee River.

“The fact that the southern edge of the county is a major river is a positive in this,” Ditchkoff said in an interview. “It’s a good thing. We know that deer swim bodies of water, but the rate at which they’re going across that river is going to be far less than if it was a just little creek. So the potential to contain it in that part of the state is greater than if we’d found it in some other locale.”

He also said the state has the benefit of being able to see what other states have done in response to CWD.

“The state’s able to learn from the successes and failures of other states,” Ditchkoff said, “to see what has worked in terms of slowing down the spread.”

Regardless of the state’s best efforts, however, the long-term future of the CWD problem remains unclear.

“It’s difficult to project what it’ll be like in 2050, 2060, 2070,” Ditchkoff said. “I’m confident that they’re going to implement the best management practices that are known today, and we can try and maintain optimism that maybe something comes around that we’re able to reverse this. The technology doesn’t exist today, but we can slow the spread and we can cross our fingers and hope.”

In the meantime, Hudson emphasized the important role that the state’s hunters can play in slowing the spread of this fatal disease.

“Hunters are really on the front lines of conservation and tend to be thoroughly well-versed in issues that would impact their hunting traditions,” she said. “When we interact with hunters in the field, we find that there’s a high level of interest and appreciation for the fact that we’re all on the same team trying to prevent a deadly wildlife disease from taking hold in our state.”

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