Slowing lethal deer disease ‘best that we can hope for’

A malady similar to mad cow disease threatens to decimate the state's deer population.

Photo by Divide By Zero on Unsplash

Environmentalists and animal-rights advocates want state wildlife officials to put more restrictions on deer farming and hunting as Florida responds to the long-expected arrival of a contagious disease fatal to deer.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission imposed a management zone covering parts of Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties after the detection last month of chronic wasting disease in a “road-killed” deer in Holmes County.

The positive test was the first known case of a deer in Florida having the disease, which has been found in 30 other states including Alabama and Mississippi. The disease is described as similar to mad cow disease, with deer becoming emaciated and often being found isolated and trembling. While not considered harmful to people, the disease can result in death to deer within four months.

During a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting Wednesday in St. Petersburg, environmentalists praised the quick actions to set up the management zone but said more needs to be done to limit the spread of the disease.

“I think this is the time to act, when there's just one deer that's been identified with CWD (chronic wasting disease),” said Chuck O’Neal of the group Speak Up Wekiva.

O’Neal suggested reassigning commission officers from immigration-enforcement efforts to focus on illegal importation of deer. He also suggested prohibiting game farms from offering deer for hunting.

“The concentration of cervids in these areas, it's a large problem in other parts of the country,” O’Neal said. “When you put them together and they're concentrated, the CWD spreads at an alarming rate.”

Kate MacFall, representing the Humane Society, urged “double fencing” of the game facilities, acknowledging that phasing out such operations is “not probably likely.”

Still, MacFall was critical of game farms as being “breeding grounds for disease.”

“Packing animals in unnaturally high densities, transporting them between ranches, increases the potential to bring the disease to new areas,” MacFall said.

Katrina Shadix of Oviedo called the disease “nature's response” to deer farming and hunting, with deer crowded into habitats.

The commission’s emergency directive that set up the management zone bars exporting deer from the area. Also, the order limits baiting or feeding deer in the zone, along with rehabilitating or releasing injured or orphaned white-tailed deer.

The order doesn’t prevent hunters from bringing killed deer into the zone to be processed.

With no simple treatment or vaccine for chronic wasting disease, deer farmers have expressed concern that a single positive test could require the eradication of entire herds, which in some cases represent millions of dollars in investments.

Newton Cook, who serves on the commission’s Deer Management Technical Advisory Group, encouraged deer farmers and hunters to “trust the staff” on the science to slow chronic wasting disease, which “my grandchildren will be living with.”

“They (staff members) have a lot of experience. They see what's happening across the country,” Cook said. “They have to do what they have to do in order to at least slow the spread of the disease in Florida. And that's about the best that we can hope for.”

The commission is reaching out to hunters in Northwest Florida to quickly collect samples from deer to determine the prevalence of the disease.

“Our hopes are that that's maintained to the Panhandle area of the state and that we can slow that spread effectively,” commission Hunting and Game Management Director George Warthen said. “And we've seen other states be able to manage this.”

Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto told Warthen to “stay the course.”

Florida has monitored the issue since 2002, testing about 17,500 hunter-killed, road-killed and sick deer. Since 2017, the state has bought equipment needed to address an outbreak.

In 2021, the state placed certain limits on importing deer carcasses into Florida. As examples, people can bring in deboned meat, finished taxidermy mounts and clean hides and antlers.

Exceptions are made for deer harvested from properties in Georgia or Alabama that are bisected by the Florida border and are under the same ownership.

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