As health experts track outbreaks of the new coronavirus, wildlife experts here in Virginia are watching another fatal condition in deer.
There are an estimated one million white-tailed deer in Virginia – a population of special interest to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ executive director Ryan Brown.
“Most people associate them with hunting, and – yes – 90% of our hunters do hunt for white-tailed deer,” he says, “but white tailed deer is also the number one watched wildlife.”
Which is why some people continue to feed deer, but Brown says that’s one way those animals are infected with a fatal condition called Chronic Wasting Disease.
“Congregation of deer is a way in which Chronic Wasting Disease is spread through nose to nose contact,” Brown explains. “We encourage the public not to feed deer, because the deer don’t need it in Virginia to survive, and number two, attracting deer to a particular feeding location simply ups the odds that the disease will be spread within the herd.”
CWD poses no risk to humans. It’s caused by prions – proteins that can live in the soil.
“The prions can exist for many, many years and be picked up by deer who visit those locations where an infected deer has been,” he says.
CWD was first identified in Shenandoah County, across the border from West Virginia, but last year a case was confirmed in Culpeper County. The state promptly organized a public education campaign.
“We scheduled a public meeting in Culpeper and had a standing room only audience,” he recalls. “It was also streamed online to 20,000 individuals.”
The department continued to check for the disease in animals killed by hunters.
““We also instituted a program with the taxidermists in the state where we’re getting samples of deer that are brought to them,” says Brown. “Chronic wasting disease is more prevalent in older age male deer than it is with other age class deer within the herd, and those coincidentally also happen to be the most likely animals to make their way to a taxidermist. These are your big bucks.”
Finally, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries would like to hear from anyone who finds a dead deer.
“There are many other factors in nature that contribute to the death of deer that don’t involve chronic wasting disease,” he says, “but it’s always beneficial for us to know and have the opportunity to take samples.”
Brown says chronic wasting disease has infected deer in many other states, but Virginia is better off than some – having banned captive herds and the importation of deer.