Riner taxidermist to help with monitoring fatal deer disease

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Riner’s Russell Coble is one of 75 taxidermists joining the fight against a disease fatal to whitetail deer.

In a strategy to monitor the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease that affects deer, elk and moose, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) has recruited 75 local taxidermists to collect tissue samples from whitetails.

Among those is Russell Coble of Coble Taxidermy in Riner. “I was asked to do it last year and again this year,” said Coble. “I collect lymph nodes out of the deer’s throat. They pay me 10 or 15 dollars a head. It takes me 15 minutes.”

Coble was trained to slice the lymph nodes, freeze half and bag half in Ziplock baggies and document the samples with the date and place the animals were killed. In January and February after deer hunting season, DGIF collects the samples.

No samples from southwest Virginia have tested positive for the disease, Coble said.

“I can go on line and see the data by March,” he said. “It’s good coverage. We get deer from all over. They haven’t found one from this area that’s positive from all those hundreds of samples.”

“In Montgomery County we’re working with local taxidermists,” said Dr. Megan Kirchgessner, a state wildlife veterinarian. “We give them data cards, they take the samples for us and collect location data and contact information. It’s a really effective way to manage surveillance because the deer most likely to carry the disease is a buck. Taxidermists see bucks.”

The disease, which can take years to be visible in an animal, is passed through urine, feces, contaminated water and direct nose-to-nose contact.

“The behavior of male deer makes them more likely to interact and travel farther than a female deer. During the rut they travel long distances trying to find mates, which makes them more likely to be exposed to the disease.”

Sixty-eight deer have tested positive for CWD in Virginia in the last ten years. While this may not seem to be a lot, Kirchgessner says the disease was first diagnosed in West Virginia in 2005 and then arrived in Virginia in 2009. CWD has subsequently been detected in Frederick, Shenandoah, and now Culpeper counties and is moving south.

“CWD is a unique disease in that it typically is very focused,” Kirchgessner said. “Of those 68 positive deer, the vast majority are from the western portion of Frederick County. There are 200,000 deer harvested in the state of Virginia each year, but when you look at these positives, they are concentrated. There are pockets of the disease. Now that focus of infection is blossoming and continuing to spread. Spilling south,” she said.

A disease management zone was established for the Culpeper area, and regulatory changes are in place to help hunters and landowners manage the incurable disease.

Coble says that meat processors and taxidermists like him are concerned by the results of the monitoring because of a fallout from a positive test.

To stop the spread of CWD, finished taxidermy products like the hides, unless they’re disconnected from the skull, skulls, skull plates and antlers, can’t be exported from an area where disease is found.

“I don’t think we’ll have a problem here,” Coble said. I sure hope not. [The state will] quarantine and they already stop moving deer across state lines. That’s a problem for hunters and businesses.”

But surveillance and monitoring is critical according to the DGIF. “This response effort is unique to CWD because we feel CWD presents a true risk to the Virginia deer population,” Kirchgessner said. “Hemorraghic disease might have an outbreak and reduce the population for a few years, so there’s no long term effect. But when we look to the west, once CWD reaches an inflection point, it has the possibility of reducing the deer population permanently.”

To communicate the concern and to recruit all hands, this August, when CWD was identified in northwestern Virginia, VDGIF held a live-streamed public meeting in Culpeper that lasted more than two hours and attracted more than 200 people, mostly hunters and deer processors. An additional 50 showed up, but the crowd exceeded the fire code. They stood in the hall to hear.

“Culpeper is a new area,” said Kirchgessner, who led the meeting. Attendees, she said, were well-informed.

“They had read about CWD, but it didn’t hit home until right now,” Kirchgessner said. They were concerned that the way they’ve hunted for years might change, and they came to get those questions answered and to ask what they could do to minimize the disease.”

Processors asked about the best management procedures to disinfect their shops if they discovered they had taken in a CWD-positive deer. While CWD is not known to be transmitted to humans, deer meat processors and Hunters for the Hungry, a program that donates wild harvest meat, will also be tested.

“All deer harvested from the disease management area will be tested for CWD and no deer that test positive will enter the food chain,” Kirchgessner said. “All deer donated from Hunters for the Hungry are tested.”

Any processor in a disease management area where the disease has been found who doesn’t follow best management practices will be excluded from the H4H program, she said. “It’s a hard line, but we simply can’t take that risk.”

Hunters are helping to monitor, too.

In Culpeper, Madison and Orange counties, hunters with a kill are required to submit their deer for CWD testing on Nov. 16. Hunters who harvest deer in those disease management counties at any other time of the season are encouraged to submit their deer for voluntary CWD testing.

Although population density is not known to be a factor in disease spread, hunters participating in Earn A Buck, the DGIF program designed to reduce the white tail deer population, is now in effect on private lands in Culpeper County. It and has been in effect in Montgomery County for a couple of years.

“We have three goals designed to control the disease,” Kirchgessner said.” They are to minimize the spread of disease in the local area, to minimize the risk of moving the disease and to monitor the spread of the disease.”

Regulations pertaining to CWD, maps of the affected states and information about CWD can be found on the DGIF website at https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/cwd/.

Anyone who spots a deer showing neurologic signs such as loss of coordination, droopy head or ears, lack of fear of humans, excessive drooling or extreme emaciation should call the DGIF Wildlife Conflict Line at 1-855-571-9003 to report a sick. The caller should document the location of the animal but should not contact, disturb, kill, or remove the animal without permission from the Department.

The contact person is Dr. Megan Kirchgessner, 804-837-5666, Virginia state wildlife veterinarian. megan.kirchgessner@dgif.virginia.gov.