DCNR director warns of chronic wasting disease

Published 6:55 pm Monday, August 13, 2018

Chuck Sykes, the Director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), spoke to the Selma Rotary Club about the possible threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) that could impact the deer population in Alabama.

“It is something that I don’t want to scare you,” he said. “But it is something that I want you all to understand this is the most serious that we have to deal with right now.”

Sykes said that CWD is one of a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE), and is a result from an infected agent called a prion. Prions are made of protein material that becomes misfolded in such a way that it becomes infectious, negatively affecting other proteins.

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The disease targets members of the deer family including reindeer, moose, elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer.

Sykes said the disease is often confused with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease and Bluetongue Virus.

Sykes said that a deer cannot be simply observed to have the disease.

Affected animals continue to eat but amounts of feed consumed are reduced, leading to gradual loss of body condition. Excessive drinking and urination are common in the terminal stages because of specific lesions in the brain. Many animals in terminal stages of CWD have excessive salivation and drooling; this may result in wetting of the hairs of the chin and neck. Death is inevitable once clinical disease occurs, according to CWD-info.org.

While the disease has not been made in Alabama, Sykes said the detection of this disease could impact the reduced sales of hunting licenses and hunter participation in the infected areas. Other economic impacts include rural vendors, land lease values and cultural shifts.

Deer hunting alone is a $1.8 billion industry in the state, according to Sykes. About $155 million in local state taxes are hunting related.

“This is not a hunting problem,” said Sykes. “This is an Alabama problem. Not only it is a way of life for a bunch of us, but it is a huge economic drive for the state as a whole. This is a relatively new disease that has only been documented since 1967.”

“You all know what mad cow disease is, that was the scare we had a few years ago,” said Sykes. “That is the same disease as this. It is not a virus. It is not a bacteria. Once you get it, you can never get rid of it. It will always be here. It is not indigent to the south. We don’t have it in Alabama thank goodness, but it is always fatal. If a deer gets it, it will die.

“To date, there has been no case of it jumping species and it going to people,” Sykes said. “However, the CDC said that if a hunter marks a deer in a CWD zone, they strongly suggest you have it tested before you consume the meat. If people get scared to eat deer meat, we are in a mess.”

The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division is the branch of DCNR that manages, protects, conserves and enhances the wildlife and aquatic resources of Alabama.