Deer hunters attended meetings around the state Tuesday to hear Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials explain proposed regulations to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease.
The meetings were held in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Hot Springs, Russellville and Monticello. The commission also will hold meetings Thursday at Fort Smith, Brinkley, Camden, Hope and Mountain Home.
More than 60 people attended the Little Rock meeting at the AGFC headquarters. Commissioners Ford Overton and Joe Morgan, both of Little Rock, also attended.
Dick Baxter, assistant chief of the AGFC's wildlife management division, briefed the audience on the timeline of the disease in Arkansas, which officially began Feb. 2 when the commission learned an elk killed by a hunter in October in Newton County tested positive.
"Deer and deer hunting are very near and dear to everybody's hearts," Baxter said. "We're all deer hunters. We don't like anything about this, but now that we have chronic wasting disease in our state, we have to do something to manage it."
CWD destroys the brains of deer, elk and other cervids. It is always fatal and is transmitted between animals through direct contact, saliva, urine and feces.
Intensive testing revealed 23 percent of deer in a 125,000-acre portion of Searcy County near the Buffalo River were infected. Animals also tested positive in Carroll County near Alpena, near Kingston in Madison County and in Pope County near London. Other cases were confirmed in Boone County, including one near Bergman.
To limit the spread of the disease, the commission is considering a set of regulations on which it will vote in June.
Most of the people who spoke at the Little Rock meeting commented on two proposals about feeding wildlife and using bait to hunt deer.
One proposal would prohibit people from feeding wildlife year round, but a related proposal will allow deer hunters to use bait from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, which corresponds roughly to muzzleloader and modern gun deer seasons.
The prohibition against feeding is meant to prevent concentrating deer in places where they are not hunted, such as residential neighborhoods.
Baiting is allowed for deer hunting. Limiting the time baiting may occur is meant to reduce concentrating deer during the nonhunting seasons.
Baiting makes it easier for hunters to kill deer, Baxter said, and reducing deer numbers is important for limiting the spread of CWD.
"We like to use bait as a management tool," Baxter said. "We don't want our deer harvests to decline. Hunter success is improved when they use bait. In the Ozarks -- in years when they have poor mast crops and there aren't many acorns for deer to eat -- we know that deer harvests go up. We want lower deer densities to manage the disease."
Gene Banks of Palestine, owner of Banks Feed, said limiting the feeding of deer is appropriate for the Ozarks but not for south Arkansas, where CWD has not been found. He urged the commission to take an incremental approach.
"The proposal, in my opinion, is wrong," Banks said. "In south Arkansas, we've got a healthy population of deer, and we've got them because we take care of them. When you pull back nutrition from deer, you're going to stress them and make them more susceptible to disease. They've got the problem up there, and you're trying to solve a problem in another part of the state where it doesn't exist. Why don't you impose these regulations up there and see how you do before you implement it in the rest of the state?"
Jared Norwood said CWD has been in the state for decades, and he urged the commission to avoid overreacting.
Overton reminded the audience the proposals have not been enacted, and the commission has discussed every subject internally that audience members mentioned.
"We don't want anybody to panic," Overton said. "Take a deep breath. This is the hand we were dealt, and we're going to walk through this thing.
"The prevalence rate indicates we've had it for more than a couple of years, and yet we're having all these record harvests. Look at all the Boone and Crockett bucks. Obviously we're not doing everything wrong."
Overton said the commission has held 22 public meetings about CWD, conducted 70 interviews and produced six videos.
"We've been in full communication mode," Overton said. "The commission is going to do the right thing."
Sports on 05/25/2016