Outdoor report

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Outdoor report: Frequently asked questions about Chronic wasting disease
Hunting season is upon us. What better way to start the season than to see a beautiful, healthy deer cross in front of your tree stand? Any Virginia hunter will tell you there are a lot of healthy ones out there!

Unfortunately, a disease introduced to the eastern US within the last 20 years represents a new challenge to Virginia’s deer herd. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is considered one of the most significant threats to the long-term health and stability of Virginia’s deer population.

What is chronic wasting disease?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a central nervous system disease that affects deer, moose, and elk. It is an infectious disease that is 100% fatal to infected animals, with no known treatment or vaccine. CWD is a serious disease that has the potential to cause significant negative long-term population impacts. The best ways to prevent the disease from spreading are:

minimize or eliminate the movement of live captive deer and elk,

restrict the importation of whole deer carcasses into Virginia,

avoid the use of lures and attractants that contain deer urine or scent gland secretions,

prevent the congregation of animals at feeding or mineral lick sites, and

properly dispose of leftover deer carcass parts.

What causes CWD?

CWD is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion, which is different from a bacteria, virus, or parasite. These abnormal proteins accumulate in the brain of infected animals and cause small holes to form, eventually leading to death. Prions can survive for years in the environment.

How is CWD spread?

The primary mechanism for spreading the disease has been, and continues to be, the movement of live deer within and across state boundaries. CWD is spread from sick to healthy deer in a variety of ways, including saliva, nasal discharge, urine, and feces.  Prions may be transferred through direct (nose-to-nose) contact or by indirect means via soil, feed, or any surface contaminated with prions.

Where has CWD been found?

As of September 2019, CWD has been diagnosed in deer, elk, and moose in 26 states, four Canadian Provinces, and two European countries. In Virginia, CWD has been detected in Culpeper, Frederick, and Shenandoah counties. It has also been found nearby in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

What does an infected deer look like?

Deer do not display clinical signs when first infected, but within 15 – 24 months the deer may become very thin, lose their fear of humans, exhibit a wide-base stance, drool or drink excessively, and/or exhibit a drooping head and ears.  Death ultimately soon follows.

What is DGIF doing about CWD?

DGIF has taken a proactive approach to attempt to slow the spread of CWD from areas where it is known to occur.  DGIF enhanced the regulation of captive deer and elk at zoos and research facilities almost two decades ago and prohibited the use of natural deer urine lures in 2015.  Starting on August 1, 2019, DGIF prohibited the importation of whole deer and elk carcasses and high-risk carcass parts collected from deer and elk killed anywhere outside of Virginia.  Upon detection of CWD in a new area, DGIF delineates a Disease Management Area and initiates appropriate regulations. One very important regulation prohibits the feeding deer year-round in any county within 25-miles of a CWD-positive deer to minimize interactions between sick and healthy deer.  Other regulations removed the Antler Point Restrictions in any county within 25-miles of a CWD-positive deer and liberalized hunting in affected areas to decrease deer densities.

Please follow CWD rules and regulations and help to spread awareness about the seriousness of this disease.  Most importantly, be safe this fall, enjoy your time in the woods, and good luck afield this year!

–Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries