November 2010
From the State Vet's Office

Hunting for Trouble?....

Not in Alabama

According to the Alabama Farmers’ Federation Wildlife Committee, hunting and fishing in Alabama is a $2.4 billion business. According to a UDSA research project conducted by Auburn University, in 2001, 10 percent of Alabamians participated in deer hunting and revenue totaled about $1.1 billion. If I were to speculate, I would say that figure is even substantially higher today. I even contribute some to figure each deer season. The fact is deer hunting is BIG business in this state and I am happy we, at the Alabama Department of Agriculture, are able to do some part in keeping the industry viable.

I have often said one of the great pleasures of my job is the people I get to work with. Over the past few years, I have developed some very significant friendships and working relationships with the folks over at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Chief of the Wildlife Section Gary Moody and Chief of the Enforcement Section Alan Andress and I have worked together on a number of projects involving a broad spectrum of topics. One project we have worked together on is the Chronic Wasting Disease Surveillance Program. USDA Veterinary Services has provided cooperative agreement funds over the past few years allowing us to perform surveillance testing all over the state for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in deer.

CWD is caused by a prion, which is, in layman’s terms, a malfunctioning protein causing the disease. CWD is one of a group of diseases known as TSE’s or transmissible spongioform encephalopathies. These diseases cause the tissue in the brain to microscopically look like a sponge. Among those diseases are BSE (bovine spongioform encephalopathy) and scrapie in sheep. Another disease belonging to this family is the human disease, Famial Fatal Insomnia, a disease that eventually kills its victims because they cannot sleep. That is a terribly unfortunate disease to have because you can’t even hope to die in your sleep. But I suppose the silver lining to the whole thing is you have more time to get things done since you can’t sleep. How did I get off on that? I want to discuss CWD.

CWD is a degenerative neurological disease of deer, elk and other cervids. The primary manifestation of the disease is the infected animal simply wastes away. That doesn’t mean every deer that wastes away and dies had CWD. There are many reasons a deer could have a fatal disease characterized by debilitating weight loss. And although the transmission of the disease is considered to be animal-to-animal, the actual mechanism of how the prion is transmitted is not completely understood. There are certainly areas where the disease is endemic, meaning it occurs commonly in those areas. The geographic areas where Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Utah have the majority of the cases, although there are 13 total states having found the disease. Positive cases have also been confirmed in Illinios, Kansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia. Notice none of the states listed border Alabama. It is also worth noting CWD is not something that will be blown in by the wind. Did I mention it is illegal to bring in deer and elk from other states?

The disease occurs in both farmed and wild cervids. It is likely farmed deer and elk have a higher likelihood of contracting the disease because of the proximity of the populations to each other. It is also worth noting, since there has been an effort to look for the disease, more of the disease has been found. Often, when a disease is obscure, it may not surface for years. However, surveillance for a disease can also give us a good idea if the disease exists in our state.

We began testing samples of both hunter-harvested and farmed deer nine years ago at the Department of Agriculture and Industries Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. With the help of the wildlife folks over at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, we have run about 700 samples a year. We have put stronger emphasis on areas in the state where scrapie has been diagnoses in sheep. To date, we can, with a great deal of confidence, assure the deer hunter CWD does not exist in our state.

Some of my friends who are state veterinarians where new cases have been found and it had not existed before have indicated one of the bigger headaches they deal with is educating the public. It is important to know the studies conducted to-date have not even found a casual-link between CWD and unusual cases of Creutzfeldt-Jocobs disease, which is the prion disease found in humans. Some states experienced a significant decrease in deer hunting revenue when it was announced CWD existed in a particular state. Now before you say, "All Dr. Frazier is interested in is the financial loss to Alabama," let me say that is completely incorrect. How many times have we seen agriculture industries devastated by speculation that turned out to not be factual. I will be the first person to publicly say I believe a food product is unsafe if I truly believe it is. I, along with my family eat venison. And so long as the science backs it up, I can give thumbs up to deer hunting and consuming what you harvest.

Beyond that, my only advice is: Stay safe in those deer stands. Happy Hunting.