Yes, CWD Kills Deer. A Mississippi Hunter Watched It Happen.

March 1, 2018 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Chronic wasting disease kills deer. In fact, a Mississippi hunter sat in his stand and watched one die of the brain-destroying disease on January 21. When a tissue sample from the carcass was tested, it delivered the state’s first-ever confirmed case of CWD, making Mississippi the 25th state to find the disease and the first in the Deep South.

Update: This Quality Whitetails article won the 2019 Pinnacle Award for Magazine Writing from the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA).

I put it to you like this because there are people who think we shouldn’t be concerned about CWD. Among the false and misleading claims some of these people make is that there’s no documented case of a deer actually dying of the disease. This was false long before January 21, but hopefully the Mississippi hunter’s story can help nail the lid on that particular myth.

I recently spoke to the president of the hunting club where this happened. I’ll call him “Joe,” because he and the members of his club wished not to have their names included in this story. Some locals have already figured out who they are, and a few are saying that the club should have left well enough alone and not reported the sick deer. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. The club did the right thing, but I respect their wishes to remain anonymous here. The news has caused an uproar and much confusion in Issaquena County and surrounding counties on the Mississippi River, just as it does every time CWD is discovered in an unexpected location.

This USGS map of CWD distribution was updated in February 2018 to include Issaquena County, Mississippi (see inset).

Though Joe remains anonymous here, Stan Priest is the real name of the wildlife biologist who oversees the club for the Anderson Tully Co. (ATCO), the hardwood lumber company that owns the land and leases the hunting rights to Joe’s club. Stan confirmed Joe’s story. Details were also confirmed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks (MDWFP).

Joe’s ATCO lease is 2,500 acres and has 26 members, about 18 of whom hunt deer regularly throughout the season from October through the end of January. They plant food plots, protect young bucks, harvest does, and participate in the state’s DMAP program. They do not provide supplemental feed as ATCO does not allow their hunting-lease holders to do so, which could end up being a very helpful factor in efforts to contain this new outbreak. They’ve had success producing an older buck age structure and took 19 bucks in the 2017-18 season of 3½ years or older, with an average gross score above 127 inches.

According to Joe, on Friday, January 19, two hunters on Joe’s club were driving a Polaris Ranger on the way to deer stands when they saw a small 7-point buck in the trail ahead, and it didn’t run at the sight of them. When the deer walked a short distance off the trail and lay down, they stopped to investigate. As they approached it on foot, the deer got up again and wandered off slowly.

“They called me and told me about it, and I told them it must have had bluetongue or was wounded in some way they couldn’t see,” said Joe. “Then the next day, I saw the deer myself.”

“He weighed 96 pounds on the hoof. The average live weight for a 4½-year-old buck on this club is 190. It was obvious this deer had been sick for a while.”

Joe was driving an ATV toward a stand on Saturday when he saw a buck walking with its head down. It looked as if it was trailing a doe by scent, he said. Where other deer normally encountered on the club would immediately flee an ATV or hunter on foot, this deer slowly walked off the trail into cover as if it wasn’t afraid. It went out of sight, and Joe drove on to his stand, thinking that he must have seen the same buck reported to him the day before.

“He just didn’t seem alarmed by me, like he had lost his fear,” said Joe. “You just don’t get that close to a mature deer in the woods in the daytime.”

On Sunday afternoon, January 21, a fourth club member was in a stand when he saw the buck wandering, head down, through the woods. It approached the hunter’s location to within about 40 yards and bedded down. He studied the buck through binoculars for a while and saw it did not meet the club’s antler regulation, which includes a 20-inch minimum main beam length for the first buck and 22-inch for the second, and he eventually turned his attention back to looking for other deer. About an hour later, he had all but forgotten about the small buck bedded nearby when he heard something thrashing in the leaves. The buck was on its back with legs kicking and shuddering, and then it grew still. After a few minutes, the hunter climbed down and approached the buck. It was not breathing.

Standing by the dead buck, the hunter called Joe. Knowing it was the strange buck they had been seeing for three days now, Joe instructed the hunter to touch the deer only by the antlers and to flip it over and look for wounds. When none were seen, Joe told him to bring the deer back to camp. After taking photos (two of which we included here, above and below) and roping a ratchet strap around the antlers, the hunter and a second member of the club dragged the buck out of the woods and back to camp, where they put it in the club’s walk-in cooler. Joe called Stan Priest that same evening, and Stan reported it to MDWFP just in case they wanted to collect disease samples from the deer. Sampling for CWD surveillance has been routine in the state since 2002, though Stan said he didn’t actually suspect CWD with this buck.

Emaciation, loss of fear, walking with a drooping head, and excessive drooling are some of the clinical signs of a deer in the final stages of CWD infection. The Mississippi buck displayed all of these.

“No, no, no,” said Stan. “We’ve all seen a hundred sick and dead deer from EHD, brain abscesses and what not, but I never once thought this deer was going to be positive for CWD.”

From Issaquena County to the next nearest CWD positive case in northwest Arkansas is over 150 miles. Issaquena County had previously been designated the lowest risk level for CWD in a “CWD Risk Assessment” map created by MDWFP just prior to the 2017-18 hunting season to help guide CWD sampling effort. This risk assessment was based on deer population density, the number of high-fenced areas permitted by MDWFP and the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, and the number of high-fenced facilities that have or had deer breeding pens. Experts believe movement of live deer is one of the primary ways CWD can be transferred into new areas, and though importation of any live CWD-susceptible member of the deer family into Mississippi has been banned since 2003, it wasn’t always. None of these risk factors pointed to Issaquena as an area where CWD would likely first appear, though counties with elevated risk are not far away (see the map below).

On Thursday, January 25, Stan met an MDWFP private lands biologist at the lease to examine the deer.

“The thing was just skin and bones,” said Stan. “Had a little bitty rack on it that looked like a yearling rack, with a 9- or 10-inch spread and 9- or 10-inch beams. But when we pulled the jawbone, it was a 4½-year-old. He weighed 96 pounds on the hoof. The average live weight for a 4½-year-old buck on this club is 190. It was obvious this deer had been sick for a while.”

Seeing no other external explanations like signs of a brain abscess, Stan said they loaded the deer in a truck and it was taken to the Mississippi State University Veterinary Diagnostics Lab in Pearl, Mississippi. On the morning of February 9, MDWFP received the bad news: chronic wasting disease. They issued a public announcement that afternoon.

CWD is fatal to all deer that contract it, though the compromised immune systems of its victims may allow other infections to actually kill them. Or, the holes in their brains may allow predators to catch them easily, since the deer lose their fear or ability to recognize danger. According to necropsy results, the Mississippi buck died of pneumonia, but make no mistake: CWD killed it. To say otherwise is to argue John Wilkes Booth was an innocent bystander because the bullet killed Abraham Lincoln.

“We’ve been ready for this day,” said Russ Walsh, Executive Wildlife Bureau Director at a February 22 public hearing, which you can watch on the MDWFP Facebook page. He was referring to MDWFP’s CWD Response Plan, which is already under implementation.

“This has caused so much grief,” Joe told me. “We’ve got a really good thing going in Mississippi with our deer herd, and I hate to see this happen.”

A CWD Management Zone has been set up centering on the location of the positive deer, with a 5-mile radius Containment Zone, 10-mile radius High Risk Zone (which extends across the Mississippi River into Louisiana), and a 25-mile Buffer Zone. Supplemental feeding has been banned in six Mississippi counties that lie in the Buffer Zone (Claiborne, Hinds, Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren and Yazoo). MDWFP staff have been contacting landowners to acquire assistance and permission to intensively sample more deer with the goal of determining the number and location of any additional positive deer. On February 27 they announced 60 deer had been harvested in the Containment Zone and submitted for testing, along with other deer such as roadkills collected up to that date. Across the river, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) is moving quickly to step up sampling in East Carroll, Madison and Tensas parishes and has encouraged hunters and landowners in those parishes to cease supplemental feeding for now. Update: On March 2, I learned that LDWF had imposed an emergency rule banning supplemental feed and minerals in those three parishes, effective March 5, 2018. It’s no longer a request. It’s mandatory.

“Right now we know we have one positive animal,” said MDWFP Deer Project Leader William McKinley at the packed public hearing. “Are there more? We don’t know yet. We’re going to enact our plan, we’re going to take samples, we’re going to ask for the public’s help, but we don’t know yet. We will learn soon.”

Update: On March 5, MDWFP announced the testing results for 64 deer collected in the 5-mile Containment Zone. CWD was “not detected” in the samples.

Despite Issaquena County being a sleeper county in MDWFP’s CWD Risk Assessment map, it is the most heavily sampled and tested county in the state’s CWD surveillance program, with more than 395 samples collected since 2002. That’s explained by the presence of 12,000-acre Mahanna WMA and by a high density of DMAP cooperating clubs in the county, both of which provide convenient sampling opportunities for state personnel. Most of the 395 samples were collected well before the CWD Risk Assessment map was created by MDWFP.

The CWD Management Zone (blue circle) is in an area previously assessed as lower risk for CWD but that had produced high sampling rates. The high numbers of samples are due to WMAs and DMAP properties in the area, which provide convenient CWD sampling opportunities for MDWFP.

The buck that tested positive also contributed a genetic sample, and those genetics are being analyzed by Mississippi State University to determine if the buck was a native deer or perhaps had an origin somewhere else. Update: On March 1, I learned the results were back. According to William McKinley, the deer was a native whitetail. Its genetics matched those of DNA samples taken previously from other wild deer in that region.

Meanwhile, hunters in Issaquena and surrounding counties can expect the typical impacts that hit hunters in new CWD areas, such as rules about carcass transportation out of the Management Zone and mandatory check stations or sampling. And to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) means waiting to receive favorable CWD test results before eating venison from any harvested deer in the Management Zone.

The great hope in situations like Mississippi’s is that CWD is discovered early enough that the few sick deer are found before the disease can become well established in the population. Joe said he knows he and his club did the right thing by calling Stan and reporting the sick deer as soon as possible, despite the murmurs of a few misinformed locals. But still he said he almost regrets turning it in.

It’s vitally important for all deer hunters to know what happens to hunters like those in Issaquena County when CWD is discovered so that everyone can contribute to preventing its arrival in new areas.

“This has caused so much grief,” Joe told me. “We’ve got a really good thing going in Mississippi with our deer herd, and I hate to see this happen. It’s hard enough to recruit new hunters as it is, and then this comes up. This doesn’t help.

“I’ve got so many questions,” he said. “Next year when we kill a deer, how do we clean it safely? Where do we put it? How do we get them tested?”

The answers to many of Joe’s questions can be found on the website of the CWD Alliance, a group to which QDMA belongs, on their Frequently Asked Questions page, their Simple Precautions page, and others. Local specifics like check stations, carcass transport rules and testing procedures are likely being worked out by MDWFP now and will be provided before hunting season approaches again. Wherever you hunt, it’s a good idea to follow your state wildlife agency on social media, sign up for their e-newsletters, or download their apps so you can get updates on information like this. Hunter surveys are revealing that many hunters, even in CWD outbreak zones, are poorly informed about the disease and its management.

Read QDMA’s Recommendations for Hunters in CWD Management Zones.

It’s vitally important for all deer hunters to know what happens to hunters like those in Issaquena County when CWD is discovered so that everyone can contribute to preventing its arrival in new areas. The two most important things hunters can do are:

  1. Stop the legal or illegal transportation of live deer or elk into the area. If you learn of someone planning to illegally import live deer, alert your state wildlife law enforcement agency immediately.
  2. Stop the movement of certain deer carcass parts from CWD-positive states into unaffected areas. If you hunt out of state or out of your region, learn the status of CWD in the area you will be hunting and the rules for transporting carcasses out of the area. Learn your own state’s rules for importing deer carcass parts. Never bring whole deer carcasses back home with you from out-of-state hunts.

It’s going to be a different sort of deer season this fall for hunters in and near Mississippi’s CWD Management Zone. They join a growing list of counties, regions and states impacted by CWD. Until a scientific breakthrough gives us some other way to fight back against this threat to deer hunting, our best weapon is to stop this list from growing any longer.

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About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.