Chronic wasting disease in deer remains predominantly in Northwest Arkansas, but it casts a shadow on hunting statewide, according to the chairman of the Arkansas Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus.
"I'm in south Arkansas, where we have no confirmed cases, but you still want to test for it," said Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.
While there has never been a case of the disease transmitting to humans, many hunters would rather err on the side of caution with what they eat.
"It takes 45 to 60 days to run the test," Wardlaw said. "You can freeze the meat, but it's just a fact that game tastes better when it's fresh."
Having to dress a deer only to put the meat in the freezer while sending a portion off for testing is a constant, unwelcome reminder the disease could turn up in a hunter's territory at any time. He knows hunters who cook and eat the venison while fresh, but "you don't look down at that piece of meat on your fork the same way," he said.
The disease remains predominantly in three rural counties in Northwest Arkansas, according to the state Game and Fish Commission.
As of Dec. 3, the commission has confirmed 770 cases of the disease in Arkansas. Of those, 664, or 86%, are in Newton, Boone and Carroll counties. The state's deer seasons -- modern gun, bow season, muzzleloader -- run at various times from September to February.
At least one case has been found in 13 of Arkansas' 75 counties, all in northern Arkansas. Independence County has the farthest eastern confirmed case. Scott County is the farthest south, and only one case has been confirmed since 2016.
Commission testing of samples sent in by hunters since September found 153 cases of the disease as of Dec. 3. The number of samples tested was 4,228. This compares with the 246 cases from September 2018 through February when 7,500 deer were tested.
The commission declared 19 counties in the northwest corner of the state as a chronic wasting disease management zone. Commission regulations make it illegal to transport deer or elk killed in the zone to anywhere else in the state except for low-impact items: antlers and cleaned skulls, meat with all bones removed, cleaned teeth, hides and finished taxidermy products.
Deer and elk killed in Boone, Carroll, Madison and Newton counties can't be taken outside those four counties except for the low-impact items.
Submitting samples for testing is voluntary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommends testing meat before eating it when hunting in areas where the disease is present, according to the commission's website. Game and Fish facilities, drop-off containers, veterinarians and taxidermists will accept samples.
It's hard to overstate the importance of hunting in the state's culture, Wardlaw said. The right to hunt and fish is in the state constitution, added there by almost 83% of the vote in 2010.
Many Arkansans are one or two generations away from hunting being a chief source of food for families, Wardlaw said. Now the number of hunting licenses and deer tags issued by the state is dropping, he said, more than 5% this year. How much chronic wasting disease adds to that is unknown, but it doesn't help, he said.
Chronic wasting disease attacks the nervous system. Its effects can include drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and other losses of control, according to the CDC. To date, the disease worldwide -- from South Korea to the U.S. to Norway -- affects only deer and related species such as elk. Arkansas's first case in wild deer was confirmed in 2016.
Counties with confirmed cases are assigned special rules by the commission, such as allowing hunting of younger bucks and allowing hunters to take more deer to thin the population, slowing the disease's spread.
"We're going to add Independence County for the first time," said Jenn Ballard, state wildlife veterinarian for the commission. However, the commission doesn't change the rules on hunters until after all seasons end in February. Therefore, the rules in Independence County haven't changed yet.
Usually, adult hunters cannot legally shoot a deer with fewer than three points on at least one of its antlers. Only male deer have antlers. Research shows young bucks range far and wide, Ballard said.
"They have longer movements and more of them," she said.
That means an infected young male deer poses the most risk for spreading the disease. An otherwise healthy deer can carry the disease, even if it shows no symptoms, she said. The disease is eventually fatal.
Neither bacteria nor viruses cause the disease, Ballard said. The agent at work is a prion, a type of protein that can cause other proteins in living deer to warp.
The prions can pass directly through saliva on food shared at feeders, for instance, and can also persist in the soil for years -- "environmental persistence," as Ballard described it. Saliva, urine or droppings can carry the prion. Both the ease of transmitting the disease in the short term and the persistence of it in soil make the disease practically impossible to eradicate.
"The only state that came close to eradicating it is New York, and that was because they found it almost at the first point of infection," she said.
The persistence of prions is also the reason behind restrictions on setting out food for deer in affected counties, she said. Both hunters and people who like to watch deer on their property often set out food, but regular meeting places such as feeding grounds are prime spots for spreading the disease, she said.
There is, as of yet, no reliable test for the disease in live deer, according to both the CDC and commission.
Elk have more natural resistance to the disease, Ballard said. To date there are no instances of the disease spreading to cattle or other livestock in Arkansas or anywhere else, she said.
"There is some question about whether it could spread to feral hogs, but that is still being investigated," she said.
Metro on 01/13/2020