Mississippi wildlife officials are on high alert.
With deer season inching closer and hunters prepared to head into the woods, representatives from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and those keenly involved in the hunting business are warning participants to take heed of cases of chronic wasting disease among deer in the state.
“What happens is it essentially makes Swiss cheese out of their brain,” MDWFP Executive Staff Officer Russ Walsh told The Dispatch.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a neurological virus that mimics the symptoms, spread and effects of Mad Cow Disease and scrapie in bovines and sheep, respectively. According to Mississippi State Extension Professor Bronson Strickland, the disease functionally takes away a deer’s ability to control its bodily functions by destroying brain cells and creating small holes in the brain. Since the disease was first studied in the early 1970s, it has proved 100 percent fatal — though it has not been proven to affect humans who consume the infected meat.
The largest issue with CWD among deer is that it spreads rapidly. Strickland noted that, once infected, a deer can be asymptomatic for months or even a year before it succumbs to the illness. Deer that are infected with CWD tend to lose weight by forgetting to eat, drool excessively and wander aimlessly.
Strickland, whose specialties include CWD, expressed how the rampant effects of CWD can take as many as 10 years or more to tangibly see.
“Rather than adult females and adult males living to five years of age, or eight years of age, they’re only living to two years of age, or three,” he said. “And over time, you will start to see the population decline. It is most manifested or the population is most sensitive, is when the prevalence rate gets high in females. And so when you’re losing the reproductive capacity within the population, that is when you’ll start to see the decline.”
In Mississippi, Walsh said there have been 56 reported cases of CWD, though some of those have been attributed to a larger outbreak in Tennessee, where more than 700 cases have been recorded. Combating Mississippi’s numbers, the MDWFP developed a long list of guidelines for hunters to abide by in addition to setting up testing sites throughout the state to determine where the disease is most concentrated.
Walsh said the department has a proclaimed statewide goal of 10,000 samples over the past few years in hopes that the department can garner a greater understanding of how the disease affects deer in the state and how to best attack the disease.
Now, there are 46 permanent freezers around the state, where hunters may drop off the head of a deceased deer to be collected for testing. Among those locations are Trim Cane Wildlife Management Area near Starkville and Black Prairie in Crawford.
The head is then shipped off to a diagnostic lab in Pearl, where tests are conducted to determine whether the sample contains CWD. In all, the process can take as long as 14 days.
Aiming to gain a firmer grasp on how many deer in Mississippi are being affected by CWD, MDWFP has instituted mandatory sampling days in parts of 46 counties at varying times during the 2020-21 hunting season. The full list of dates and locations of stations for sample drop off can be accessed on the MDWFP website.
“We’re doing a lot of monitoring and we have some regulations in place to mitigate the disease, and as well as we’ve increased the antlerless bag limits, as well as modified the buck bag limits in an effort to increase the number of deer that may be harvested,” Walsh said. “Because we know that reducing deer density does help to slow the spread of the disease.”
Impact on hunters, deer processors
Chris Herring, the owner of Prairie Meat Company — a deer processor with locations in both Macon and Columbus — noted that the recent increase in CWD awareness hasn’t had much, if any, effect on his business.
On a given weekend during hunting season, Herring said he brings in anywhere from 300 to 400 deer. With a freezer that can hold around 500 carcasses, he noted he can’t afford to wait for test results regarding meat being processed for CWD. Simply put, he needs the space.
“Let’s say that (someone) brings a deer in and says, ‘Hey Chris I want to get this deer tested, I don’t want you to process it until (I) get it tested,'” he said. “Well we can’t do that. We’re going to process it because we can’t stick it in the back of the cooler. We prep those (carcasses) as they come in order.”
Herring also noted Prairie Meat Company had between 100 and 150 deer tested for CWD last year. None tested positive.
As for those on the ground in the industry, local hunter Slade Fancher said CWD hasn’t swayed anyone from heading into the woods. A manager at Owen’s Outfitters in Starkville, Fancher has been hunting for decades.
With the season nearing, he noted equipment has flown off the shelves and there’s as much interest as he’s ever seen given folks have been kept inside due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the coronavirus, we’ve seen it, we’re going to have way more people hunting this year,” he said. “Especially in Starkville, just because all the college kids don’t have in-person classes. They’re going to be out there hunting more than they ever have. So I’ll be anxious to see how all the testing and stuff goes.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.