Deer disease prompts new rules, precautions for hunters

HOUSTON – Whether you’re out to get a trophy buck, or just hoping to bag a deer for its meat, Texas hunters need to be aware of a deadly disease attacking herds in certain parts of the state.

Chronic Wasting Disease, often called CWD for short, is a disease from the same family as Mad Cow disease. It’s caused by a protein called a prion that the animal picks up from another diseased animal, or from the environment contaminated by a diseased animal.

Unlike sicknesses caused by bacteria or viruses, CWD can’t be cooked out of the meat or easily removed from areas that are contaminated. 

Ryan Schoeneberg from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said, “The only way we can get rid of the disease is incinerating at about 1,400 degrees Celsius or soaking it in bleach solutions, so that’s why our jobs as biologists is so dire, and why we try so hard to prevent disease from spreading, because once you get it you can never get rid of it, so our only cure is prevention.”

[READ: CWD in Texas]

The idea is to prevent the disease from moving from areas of Texas, where it’s already known, into other areas where the disease has never been reported.

TPWD is changing the rules for hunters to contain and control the spread of CWD.  When hunting in three specific areas of the state, deer hunters have a mandatory requirement to take their kill to a check station to have a sample of its lymph nodes or brain taken for testing. Deer hunters in all other areas of the state are encouraged to call their county biologist to get their deer tested as well. 

Monitoring deer outside the known CWD zones will help the state quickly identify if the disease has spread to any new areas. 

Shoeneberg said the test is quick and simple.

“We collect a piece of the lymph node, which comes from the bottom of the throat, or a piece of the brain," he said. "It doesn’t mess up the meat. It doesn’t mess up the cape if it’s a trophy animal.  And so we take that tissue (and) we submit it to the lab. A few weeks later they’re going to return a test result to us.”

Testing is done at no cost to hunters. Hunter David Hughes got a doe outside a CWD zone and got it tested.

“The state will give you this little paper, and that has a barcode that will tell you your sample number, and then you can go on to their website, plug in your sample number and they’ll give you the results for your CWD test,” Hughes said.

[READ: CWD positives in Texas]

CWD was first detected in Colorado in the late 1960s. Since that time, it’s been found in deer, elk, moose and reindeer in 24 states.

It first turned up in far West Texas in 2012 in a mule deer. 

Since it was first discovered in Texas, 65 cases have been confirmed, including three in the last week of November 2017. Sick deer have come from the wild and from five different deer breeding ranches.

While 65 cases may not seem like a lot, wildlife experts said you have to consider this is a slow-moving disease. It can take years between the time a deer, moose, elk or reindeer is first infected and when it develops clinical symptoms, which may include:

  • Drastic weight loss (wasting)
  • Stumbling
  • Lack of coordination
  • Listlessness
  • Drooling
  • Excessive thirst or urination
  • Drooping ears
  • Lack of fear of people
  • Aggression

The CDC noted that it can be difficult to diagnose a deer, elk or moose with CWD based on symptoms alone because similar symptoms also occur with other diseases and malnutrition.  However, the CDC said CWD is always fatal.

CWD is not known to have jumped species to humans. However, ongoing studies in Colorado indicate it may be possible. As a precaution, the CDC is asking hunters to strongly consider having all deer tested before eating the meat, and to not eat the meat if the animal tests positive for CWD.

Chronic Wasting Disease quick facts:

Chronic Wasting Disease is a fatal neurological disease in some deer species such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, red deer, sika, moose and reindeer, and it is caused by a misfolded protein called a prion.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, two primary sources of infection for deer are from animal-to-animal contact and a contaminated environment by infected animals shedding prions through body fluids and from decomposition of an infected animal.

Because eradication is thought to be impossible once CWD becomes established in a population, it is imperative that a sound CWD management program be established to reduce the severity of implications resulting from the disease.

In order to contain the disease, TPWD and TAHC must understand the geographic extent and prevalence of CWD. This is done by collecting samples from hunter-harvested deer, elk, and other CWD susceptible species at CWD check stations. Containment strategies include restricting movements of live CWD susceptible species and certain carcass parts.

New for 2017, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife:

  • Modifications to the Panhandle and South-Central Texas CWD Zones.
  • Hunters now have additional 48 hours to provide CWD samples at check stations.
  • New operating dates and times for check stations.
  • Mandatory testing and carcass movement restrictions now apply in South-Central Texas CWD Zone.
  • Texas Animal Health Commission has new CWD rules that apply statewide to harvested exotic CWD susceptible species such as elk, red deer, sika, moose, and reindeer

CWD Safe Meat Handling guidelines, according to CDC:

Do not shoot, handle or eat meat from deer and elk that look sick or are acting strangely or are found dead (road kill).

When field dressing a deer:

  • Wear latex or rubber gloves when dressing the animal or handling the meat
  • Minimize how much you handle the organs of the animal, particularly the brain or spinal cord tissues.
  • Do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing.
  • Strongly consider having the deer or elk tested for CWD before you eat the meat.
  • If you have your deer or elk commercially processed, consider asking that your animal be processed individually to avoid mixing the meat from multiple animals.
  • If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat the meat from that animal.