Supplemental feeding of deer was suspended on Feb. 9 in six west-central counties of Mississippi after a lab in Iowa confirmed the Magnolia State’s first case of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a free-range buck from Issaquena County.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks immediately implemented its CWD Response Plan under the auspices of the Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Pursuant to the Order of the Executive Director on behalf of the Commission, supplemental feeding was banned in Claiborne, Hinds, Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren, and Yazoo counties.

No feeding of deer, including through mechanized feeders, is allowed in any fashion. Baiting hogs will continue to be allowed, but with much tighter restrictions.

“Baiting for the trapping of wild hogs will only be allowed when the corn or other grain is placed within the confines of the trap,” said Russ Walsh, MDWPF’s chief of wildlife. “And anyone in those six counties operating a hog trap will have to have the trap permitted through the agency. We don’t want to dissuade anyone in their attempts to control wild hogs, but we must take the steps necessary to prevent the spread of CWD.”

Amy Blaylock, assistant chief of wildlife, said on Feb. 12 that the ban on supplemental deer feeding in the six-county area is just the first step in a fluid MDWFP response plan for CWD.

“We are now formulating an effort to collect more samples of deer within the 5-mile containment zone around the site where the deer with CWD was found,” she said. “We will test them to see how prevalent the disease is in the five-mile area and then decide from there whether we need to expand the sampling into the 10-mile range and beyond.

“One thing that is promising is that the area where this was found is the most-tested area of the state. We have sampled more deer from there than anywhere else, and until Friday, we haven’t had a positive test.”

There is no CWD testing facility in Mississippi.

“Right now, there are two that most states use: one in Iowa where we sent this one, and one in Colorado,” Blaylock said. “There are two tests for CWD, and it costs about $60 per animal for both tests; it takes about two weeks to get the results.”

Mississippi is the 25th state with a confirmed case of CWD, another fact that works to its advantage.

“We’re not the first state to have to fight CWD, and we have the advantage of seeing what other states have done to learn from their responses,” Walsh said.

“Arkansas just confirmed its case in the northwest part of the state in 2016,” Blaylock said. “and when they did their sampling, they found enough positive tests to know they had had CWD for probably 10 years, but just didn’t have any confirmation. We’ve watched them closely.” 

Blalock said the agency first received notice of the buck on Jan. 25.

“We got the call that a 4½-year-old, free-range buck was found dead in a food plot,” she said. “As I understand it, a hunter had seen the buck a few times in the preceding days, and it appeared to be acting sick, or strange. Then, two days later, he found it dead in the food plot. The buck weighed just 96 pounds, was terribly emaciated and had died from pneumonia. Pneumonia was the official cause of death.”

Blaylock said the pneumonia was likely the result of the deer’s poor health, caused by the CWD.

CWD was first documented among captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967 and has been confirmed now in 25 states, three Canadian provinces, and two foreign countries.

According to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, CWD affects a deer’s nervous system. Once in the host’s body, prions transform normal cellular protein into an abnormal shape that accumulates until the cell ceases to function. Infected animals begin to lose weight, lose their appetite and develop an insatiable thirst. They tend to stay away from herds, walk in patterns, carry their head low, salivate and grind their teeth. CWD has a 100-percent fatality rate; deer that are infected will die.

Anyone seeing a deer acting strangely and showing any of those symptoms should notify the MDWFP immediately at 1-800-BE-SMART.

Jeff Terry of Eagle Lake lives just outside the 5-mile containment zone on about 1,000 acres of property he leases to farmers. He hunts for recreation and is concerned about the impact of CWD being found so close.

“Yes, it causes some worry and fear,” said Terry, a former guide at nearby Tara Wildlife. “We’ve seen some sick deer; we see them all the time. Usually, when we shoot them, we find that the animal has suffered some sort of injury — like being shot with a gun or bow — or has incurred another kind of injury like a broken leg or deep gash.

“But there have been some that we don’t know what was involved, so, yes, I have to worry that it could have been CWD, but that’s just one of many things that concerns me about CWD. This could be an economic disaster over here. There are a lot of landowners, stores and other businesses here that would be horribly impacted if the outbreak is big. We’ve got stores and other types of businesses over here that depend on the money deer hunters spend each season. For many, I bet it’s half their annual business income, if not more.”

Terry said large landowners depend on recreational land leases for income, “but who wants to lease land where CWD is found and you are afraid to eat the meat. A lot of sportsmen won’t kill anything they can’t eat. There are some who would kill just for the trophy racks, but I doubt it’s enough to sustain the industry.”

Terry hopes the MDWFP will remain open with the public and keep it informed about the response.

“We do plan to have a public meeting or meetings over there, in that area, at some point,” Blaylock said. “That is on our response plan list. But right now, we are in the formative stages in our response plan, and the response will be impacted by what happens in each stage. It will be fluid in that respect.”

For example, whether or not the sampling of deer — which can only be conducted on dead animals — needs to expand outside the 5-mile containment zone will depend on the percentage of positive tests found within the 5-mile zone.

Walsh said it’s not time to panic, but one to take steps to learn the extent of CWD’s spread, if any, and to prevent it from spreading. While feeding may or may not have contributed to this animal’s illness, it could hasten the spread of infection by concentrating deer around a food source.

“Food plots are not included in the ban; because of their size they don’t concentrate deer nearly as much,” Walsh said. “It actually spreads the deer out over a wider area.”

CWD is a prion-based disease. Prion is a term derived from proteinacious infectious particle and refers to the pathogen that causes transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), rare neurodegenerative diseases. It is believed that prions released through bodily excretions from CWD-infected deer can remain infectious for at least 10 years.

“That’s what scares me the most,” Terry said. “Even if they don’t find CWD in the sampling, what can they do? Everywhere that one deer had been, where it ate, drank or pooped, can infect deer four, five or 10 years from now. I read where deer can have CWD for two years before it shows symptoms, so how many deer are walking around out there already infected that aren’t showing the signs of it yet?

“If they find that a big percentage of the deer test positive, say 25 to 50 percent in a certain area, you know they can’t exterminate every deer in that area. It’s simply impossible, and I don’t care if they line people up shoulder to shoulder and march them through the woods with rifles. They won’t get them all. So where does it stop?”

Terry paused, sighed, and added: “There’s so much uncertainty so much unknown about CWD, it’s just scary.”