“Now is not the time to panic.”

That’s how Russ Walsh opened the initial public meeting Feb. 22 after Mississippi’s first case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was confirmed in a 4½-year-old buck found dead in late January in Issaquena County. 

The wildlife bureau director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, Parks was hoping to calm the fears of about 200 people who attended the meeting at the Natural Science Museum in Jackson.

But just minutes later, Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist for the Mississippi Department of Health, created a buzz when he repeated that his agency, based on a information from the Federal Center for Disease Control, was advising that people not eat venison from a 25-mile CWD management zone that impacts six counties. 

“We’re not telling people you can’t eat it, just advising that it be tested for CWD before you do,” Byers said.

Those seemingly contradictory reports from two state experts serve as a prime example of the uncertainties the agencies and the public face after Mississippi became the 25th state to confirm CWD. 

How bad is the outbreak?

How dangerous is it for humans?

Will it have a negative impact on the business of deer hunting?

What if this?

What if that? 

The answer to all, as difficult as it is to write, say or hear, is: We just don’t know.

Fifty years since CWD was first detected in Colorado, it has been studied and studied and studied some more, yet we just don’t know. 

“Right now, all we do know is that we have one buck in Issaquena County that tested positive for CWD, and that’s what we are dealing with,” Walsh said. “Now is not the time to get in a fevered pitch; it is a time to be vigilant. We have been expecting this, knowing sooner or later CWD would reach Mississippi. We had a plan in place, and on Feb. 9, within hours of getting the lab tests back, it was implemented.”

One thing is clear: deer hunting, at least in the immediate vicinity of Issaquena and Warren counties, won’t be the same, especially in the next few years.

At least we’re not first

There are two kinds of states: those that have CWD in those that will.

Biologists say that in one respect, Mississippi is lucky, lucky that it was the 25th state added to a growing list, which also includes three Canadian provinces. Others, like Arkansas, where it was confirmed in 2016, have experience responding to CWD and can be very helpful as biologists here continue building a response plan.

That is important since the MDWFP response plan, in its infancy, is very fluid and will evolve in many different directions.

“We have already met with Mississippi and Louisiana (within two weeks of the Issaquena County confirmation), and have shared information with them,” said Cory Gray, director of the Research, Evaluation and Compliance Division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “They are where we were two years ago and they are right that it’s a step-by-step process. They are in the very first step.

“I use an example of equating it to a doctor’s visit. First, you get your blood work, and let’s say it comes back out of normal. Then you do more testing and eventually develop a treatment plan for whatever ailment it is.” 

Gray was Arkansas’s deer-project coordinator in Arkansas when the disease appeared there, and he was later appointed to lead the Research, Evaluation and Compliance Division that was created to lead the response to CWD.

Gray hopes the next round of testing — which Mississippi officials said would include sampling 60 deer from the 5-mile containment zone — goes better for Mississippi than it did for Arkansas after it found an elk and a doe deer infected within weeks of each other in 2016.

“We planned to test 300 animals in the core area (northwest Arkansas),” Gray said. “We were at 266 when we stopped; we’d found a 23-percent rate of infection, and we knew we had a major problem. We stopped testing and began planning. I hope they don’t find that level of prevalence.”

Gray said public information is vital.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep the public informed and part of the process,” Gray said. “We communicated, communicated and communicated. During the sampling, we had weekly meetings kind of like town hall meetings in the core area. We promised them we would keep in touch. We held statewide meetings.

“We held 23 or 24 public meetings, trying to communicate. One of the first things we were told by other states with CWD is that we had to have the support of Arkansans. If we don’t have the support, we’re fools. Some say we have over-communicated, but we didn’t, and we did it with a measured response. We didn’t want to come across as panicky, and we didn’t want to appear secretive. Our public has been responsive and helpful. That’s key.”

Walsh agreed, saying that the MDWFP’s plan includes plenty of public interaction through meetings, social media, radio and news releases.

“This is just the first of what I expect to be many meetings, and not just in the immediate area of impact,” he said. “We have to keep our guard up statewide.”

What is CWD?

At the first meeting in Jackson, Walsh and staff spent a lot of time explaining CWD.

Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmittable neurological disease of deer, elk and other cervids. It produces small lesions in the brains of infected animals. It is characterized by loss of body condition, behavioral abnormalities and always death. It is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep.

Infectious agents of CWD are neither bacteria nor viruses, but are hypothesized to be prions, infectious proteins without associated nucleic acids.

“Prions are not alive, like a virus or a bacteria,” said William McKinley, the MDWFP’s deer coordinator. “They are resilient to enzymes, chemicals, detergents and time. They are shed through saliva, feces, urine, blood and decaying carcasses, but tests show it is not always passed in birth. Once infected, a deer can begin (dropping infectious prions) in six months. The incubation period is usually 12 to 16 months but can be as long as 60 months, and during that time the animal will otherwise appear normal.

“However, once the deer becomes symptomatic, the process is fast, and it will soon die. The mortality rate is 100 percent.”

Although CWD is a contagious fatal disease among deer and elk, most — but not all — research and statistics suggest that humans, cattle and other domestic livestock are resistant to natural transmission. 

Assessing the infection rate

After CWD was confirmed within a mile of the Steel Bayou Water Structure in Issaquena County, the MDWFP immediately established a 25-mile CWD Management Zone. The core zone, a 5-mile circle with the center at the spot the deer was found, is called the containment zone. The 10-mile circle is the high-risk zone. The 25-mile ring is the buffer zone.

McKinley said the agency spent the first few weeks scouring the 5-mile zone, getting approval and signatures to allow MCWFP agents access to private land to collect samples. They got full compliance.

Walsh announced on Feb. 27 that the agency had taken the 60 deer from the containment zone.

“We have shipped those off to be tested, and some others that we collected that were reported to be sick deer, and we expect the results back within the next few weeks,” he said. “As we receive those results back over the next weeks they will help us in decision making as to how we move forward in our response efforts.”

At the Feb. 22 meeting, McKinley said that “finding even one more CWD positive deer would expand our containment zone.”

As each case is found, if any, a new management map will be created with a new 5-mile containment zone drawn around each case, with new high-risk and buffer areas.

“Honestly, we were expecting that eventually we would get a case of CWD, but we never expected it where it happened,” McKinley said. “Since 2002, we have sampled 13,227 deer from all 82 counties. The county with the most samples is Issaquena. No. 2 is (its neighbor) Sharkey. Those samples had always been negative until this one.

“We have sampled deer that were harvested (Mahannah WMA is in the zone), taken to taxidermists, deer that were reported to be ill and from road kills. One thing we learned from other states in CWD areas is that road kills are good samples because many times, the symptoms of CWD put them in the road.”

In late February, the Mississippi River was rising and expected to flood most of the containment zone and much of the high-risk zone, which could present other problems.

“They’ll need boats,” Jeff Terry said on Feb. 25. “My land is adjacent to the 5-mile area. I can throw a rock from my property line and land it in the zone. I’m already getting hundreds of deer in my fields, and most of them are coming up out of the 5-mile area.

“I volunteered my property and my walk-in cooler, but I have yet to hear back. I guess that’s because I’m outside the core zone. With this flood water, it’s already moving deer.”

To test or not to test

Terry is one hunter/landowner who wants his deer tested, whether they are visitors coming from inside the containment zone or his resident deer.

Testing is expensive, though not on a case-by-case basis. There are two tests. One, called Elisa, is $20 and takes less than 24 hours for the sample to be tested. The other, called IHC, is more conclusive, costs $30 and takes two to three weeks to complete.

“A lot of times, we use the $20 test, and if it shows any sign of abnormality, we order the second $30 test, which is more conclusive,” Arkansas’s Gray said. “We use a facility in Wisconsin, and it’s pretty easy. They have a working agreement with UPS and have cooler boxes ready. We can send as many as 400 or 500 in a batch, so shipping fees aren’t that much.

“We had a culture here of having animals checked. We’ve had mandatory checks, and the public works with us. The more deer you can sample, the better the picture.”

Mississippi has never had a public, mandatory check station, and it has no certified CWD testing facility. The MDWFP uses a lab in Iowa. Mississippi State University officials at the meeting in Jackson said they have the capability to test, but not the equipment. They wouldn’t guess how much it would cost to equip, man and get certification, but said it wouldn’t be cheap.

“Arkansas will have one this year,” Gray said. “The diagnostic lab of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission will do the testing. We’ve been meeting with them to discuss it, and it’s been a year-long process to get the equipment and certification. We hope to be testing in-state this year, which will certainly streamline the process.”

Mississippi’s Department of Health, following the federal Center for Disease Control recommendation, is advising that any deer from the CWD management zone be tested before being consumed.

Of course, more than 95 percent of deer killed during the 2017-18 season were already processed and in freezers — and the bellies — of a lot of hunters in the management zone. Byers said there is no conclusive test that can be run on meat.

“Them telling me that, and seeing how close I am to the core area, that’s all I needed to know,” Terry said. “I had 19 deer in my freezers from our property. That’s deer that were mine, my kids and others, either in sausage, ground or steaks. I loaded it all up in the back of the UTVs and hauled them out to a pit and buried them.

“Uh-uh, sorry, but no, I’m not taking any chances, especially not when my kids and grandkids are involved. I will have them tested next year; you can count on it. They say there are no cases over the years of humans being infected, but do they really know.”

Human risk?

Since the first case of CWD was confirmed in a Colorado mule deer in the late 60s, millions of hunters have killed millions of deer and elk in the states and Canadian provinces where CWD has been detected. They have dressed and eaten those animals without a single case of human infection. 

According to the Alliance for Public Wildlife, a Canada-based wildlife conservation organization, hunting families in North America consume between 7,000 and 15,000 CWD-infected animals every year.

There have been zero verified cases of humans contracting the disease, but we just don’t know if humans are completely safe.

CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), in the same family as two diseases known to be fatal to humans — mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — and researchers and health officials have studied CWD’s potential for interspecies spread.

A recent test is ominous. 

In 2017, a Canadian lab did confirm the disease can spread to primates. Macaque monkeys, so close to humans that they are the standard for animal testing in regards to human impact, were fed venison from a CWD-positive deer and became symptomatic of the disease. For three years, the monkeys were fed the equivalent to what a human would eat if he/she consumed one 7-ounce venison steak per month.

The same lab also injected CWD prions directly into test Macaques, and again, the monkeys developed the disease.

In another test, scientists rubbed the prions on the skins of Macaques, similar to how humans could be exposed while dressing infected deer. Those monkeys did not develop the disease.

Based on the results of the Macaque testing, Health Canada warns that the potential of CWD jumping species and infecting humans cannot be excluded. The USA’s Center for Disease Controls seems to agree.

The cost of response

Gray said Arkansas spent $800,000 on CWD in the first year (2016) and perhaps a bit more in 2017.

“Increased testing, manpower, meetings … it adds up,” he said. “We had to buy a lot of equipment, freezers and incinerators.” 

Michael Bolden, head of MDWFP’s financial branch, is well aware.

“Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but we will have to do what we have to do,” he said. “When you talk about adding $800,000 to our annual wildlife budget, that is a big percentage. We have to think about where it will come from, how other programs will be impacted.”

That is one of the concerns, McKinley said, that CWD raises, along with the impact on hunting heritage, affecting the deer population and management, potential of human health concerns.

In addition to being an important recreation and part of the heritage of hundreds of thousands of Mississippians, deer hunting is big business. It is estimated to have a $1.5 billion impact on our economy.

“You take this area over here in the 5- and 10-mile zones, and it is huge,” Terry said. “I’m worried about this area over here, and the impact it will have financially. There are a lot of small businesses over here that depend on hunters. There are landowners over here who depend on leasing their land to hunters. If we lose that, we will suffer.”

Potential impact

Iowa County in Wisconsin serves as the worst-case scenario and was used by McKinley at the first public meeting.

“They began testing deer there as soon as CWD was found in 2002,” he said. “The spread of the disease has been increasing on a steady curve ever since and now has reached 50 percent of the buck population. That’s half of the bucks, and they won’t reach maturity. Now they are seeing positive tests in 33 percent of the does, too.”

Knowing the mortality rate and the incubation rate, the impact is obvious. Few deer are reaching maturity, meaning finding a trophy buck is difficult, and with fewer deer, the population will drop.

“That means few bucks make it past 2½ years old,” Terry said. “Two reasons people deer hunt — trophy bucks and venison for the freezer — and CWD can take them both away. No more trophy bucks, and who wants to eat venison when the odds aren’t good they are infected? Who wants to lease land knowing that? This could devastate our area over here in the Issaquena, Warren and Sharkey (counties) area.”

It could, but then it might not, just another uncertainty.

“Colorado has had CWD since 1967 and while it is devastating the mule deer, which seem most vulnerable, thousands of people are paying thousands of dollars every year to go there and hunt,” said Jim Turner of Vicksburg, who attended the Jackson meeting. “Nothing has hurt them. Nobody has gotten sick.”

Well, not yet, anyway.