Veteran wildlife biologist Russ Skoglund says “everybody was startled” by the recent discovery of a Chronic Wasting Disease-infected deer in Henry County, as the deadly disease creeps closer to Middle Tennessee.
“It’s a whole new ball game,” Skoglund says, referring to the fact that the infected deer was found in an area far removed from the southwestern counties in which CWD had previously been diagnosed.
“We never fooled ourselves that it (the disease) was going to stop,” Skoglund says. “Our goal was to try to contain it and slow its spread. Everybody was startled by where the latest case was found.”
In the past, the disease has advanced county-by-county, with infected deer transmitting the highly-contagious disease through contact.
Skoglund, a 37-year-veteran of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, is baffled about why the latest case popped up several counties away from the TWRA’s designated “CWD Unit.”
“This is pure conjecture, but it could have been transmitted by the carcass of an infected deer brought into Henry County,” Skoglund says. “It could have been a deer brought from the CWD Unit without being tested, or it could have been a deer brought in from out-of-state. Both are against the law, but it happens.”
Another unsettling possibility: the infected deer – a 3.5-year-old doe – traveled through several counties before reaching Henry County and exhibiting CWD symptoms. In that event, it may have left a trail of infected deer in its wake, yet to be discovered.
A deer can be infected with CWD for as long as 16 months before exhibiting symptoms of the neurological disease – physical wasting away, staggering and stumbling, and other erratic behavior. Meanwhile, it can transmit the disease.
CWD is not believed to be harmful to humans, livestock or other wildlife, but is fatal to cervids such as deer, elk and moose.
The Tennessee River serves as a natural boundary between Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee, where all the CWD cases have so far occurred. But that expanse of water won’t deter the movement of deer, which are excellent swimmers.
The TWRA last year requested hunters to drop off heads of their harvested deer at various sites for CWD testing. Skoglund established a site at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, and will do so again this deer season. A freezer will be placed at the park and available for drop-offs during regular park hours.
Skoglund said 12-15 deer were tested there last year and none were positive. However, as the disease draws closer to Middle Tennessee, that could change.
Any deer killed in the CWD Unit must be inspected before being transported. If a harvested deer tests positive, it is confiscated and the hunter is allowed to kill another one.
However, the bother involved in the testing, in addition to the specter of harvesting a potentially infected deer, is a detriment to deer hunting – and why CWD is considered the greatest threat in wildlife-management history.