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Facing Disease Head On


Whitetail deer is the lifeblood of the hunting industry across the country. There is a mountain of data to support the fact that more hunters dollars, time and energy is spent pursuing the whitetail deer than any other animal. As hunters who have a passion for chasing the whitetail deer we have become complacent. We have taken the whitetail for granted. We have assumed he would always be there. Noble, majestic and elusive, nothing stirs the soul in the American hunter than the sight of a mature whitetail buck.

But if the trends continue, the once prolific whitetail will revert to days gone by and the hunt will become a distant memory. Here is South Carolina alone, the harvest is down almost 30% over the past few years. The overall population has taken a significant hit. While this is due to many factors, predators, farming changes, pine plantation maturation etc. One factor that is on the horizon and that many other states are facing is that of deadly diseases. Specifically, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and Epizootic Hemorrhagic disease (EHD). While there has not been a confirmed case of either of these in the Carolinas or Georgia, they are on the boarders and spreading. Many states near have confirmed cases and these present a threat of spreading.

What precautions can land owners and managers take to identify, prevent and isolate these diseases? What are the ramifications if an outbreak occurs? First lets explain what these diseases are and what they are capable of doing.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD):

is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, and moose. To date, CWD has only been found in members of the deer family. First recognized as a clinical “wasting” syndrome in 1967 in mule deer in a wildlife research facility in northern Colorado it was identified as a TSE in 1978 and has spread to free-ranging and captive populations in 23 US states and two Canadian provinces. CWD is typified by chronic weight loss leading to death. No relationship is known between CWD and any other TSE of animals or people.

While there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans, the Centers for Disease control (CDC) says “as a precaution, hunters should avoid eating deer and elk tissues known to harbor the CWD agent (e.g., brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes) from areas where CWD has been identified.”

The disease is most often seen in adult animals. The disease is progressive and always fatal. Landowners who observe deer with CWD will notice as the most obvious and consistent clinical sign of weight loss over time. Behavioral changes also occur in the majority of cases, including decreased interactions with other animals, listlessness, lowering of the head, lethargy, repetitive walking in set patterns, and a smell like meat starting to rot. In elk, behavioral changes may also include hyperexcitability and nervousness. Excessive salivation and grinding of the teeth also are observed. Most deer show increased drinking and urination. Perhaps one of the most odd behavior patterns is a lack of fear of humans. CWD is a horrible disease and while there are no known cases in the southeast, we need to keep it that way. Transportation of live deer from other states is the greatest threat to spreading the disease. Deer farms, and fenced enclosures are most prone to the disease and most likely to develop and spread the disease.

EHD: is a viral disease and the most common whitetail disease, it is transmitted by biting midges, commonly called no-see-ums and it happens annually all across the country. Infected deer will begin to show signs within a week such as depression, fever, swelling of the head, neck, tongue and difficulty breathing, loss of appetite. Then it gets a lot worse, some will exhibit ulcers on their tongues, the roof of the mouth beginning to erode fluid begins to build up in the lungs. As the fever gets higher and higher deer begin to seek out water to cool down. This is why so many infected deer carcasses are found near water. Most deer who are infected are dead in five to ten days.

While CWD is only found in members of the deer family, EHD knows no such boundaries. Cases have been noted in Bighorn sheep, antelope, and mule deer. EHD has been confirmed in 30 states and is most prevalent in the southeast.

Since landowners cannot control the insect population, there is not much hunters and wildlife managers can do to prevent outbreaks on their lands. As summer begins the long stretch of the hottest days, the opportunity for EHD is greatest. Thankfully the cold weather brings an end to the seasonal spread.

By monitoring the health of your herd, you can alter your harvest quota’s, and supplemental feed and watering systems to make your herd the healthiest it can be under your situation.

While these diseases may not be active in your part of the world, they are there and active, being knowledgeable and prepared can help you keep your herd healthy.