State Game and Fish Commission faces tricky predicament with spread of chronic wasting disease

Agency looks at how best to curb it

A deer with chronic wasting disease is shown in this file photo.
A deer with chronic wasting disease is shown in this file photo.

A deadly disease among deer and elk is advancing across Arkansas even as state regulators work to contain it.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD), which has been detected in more than 1,290 white-tailed deer and elk in Arkansas' Northwest quarter since 2016, turned up recently on the state's southern border in its deer-hunting capital, El Dorado's Union County.

Then Friday, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission announced the first case in Randolph County, on the state's northeast border with Missouri.

"It's a challenge, but the sky is not falling," Game and Fish director Austin Booth said. "Deer hunting as we know it is not over."

What's important for hunters to know, Booth said, is "they need to keep hunting, and they need to get their deer tested" for chronic wasting disease.

Now come the painful next steps. The Game and Fish Commission is expected early this year to consider CWD containment measures for hunting, handling and feeding deer that would be new for Union, Randolph and surrounding areas in the state.

The commission already has adopted special regulations for 21 counties in the state's northwest and central sections to fight the contagious, always-fatal disease that strikes deer, elk and their cousins. Those counties make up the agency's current CWD Management Zone.

The agency generally proposes new rules in February each year and holds public hearings, according to an agency spokesman. Commissioners vote in April or May.

Hunters in the El Dorado area already are talking about stricter rules to contain CWD that might be adopted in their area.

Tanner Barnett, assistant manager at Union Kennel and Farm Supply in El Dorado, and other hunting store owners and managers said they don't hear people expressing a lot of concern about chronic wasting disease turning up in deer they kill or eat.

They do worry about "the state stepping in and maybe taking away deer-feeding privileges" and enacting hunting regulations that will thin herds and "hurt hunting itself," Barnett said.

Emon Mahony of El Dorado, a lifelong hunter and former Game and Fish commissioner, said: "You can bet there will be an outcry if people in Union County are told they can't continue what they're doing in hunting."

"Deer hunting is a way of life here," Mahony said. "People take great pride and pleasure in teaching it to the next generations."

Game and Fish commissioner Stan Jones of Clover Bend in Lawrence County, which adjoins Randolph County, said hunters there will be disappointed to hear that the disease "finally got to their county."

"This CWD is something we're battling," said the farmer and hunter. "We kind of have to follow the protocol" that state and national experts recommend.

"No hunter or anybody at Game and Fish is happy about this."

Chronic wasting is a particularly difficult disease for wildlife managers to rein in.

It strikes the brains and nervous systems of cervids, which include deer, elk and moose. It is carried in misfolded proteins, called prions, that multiply and eventually kill.

Infected animals often don't show symptoms for months, but can transmit the disease to healthy ones through physical contact and body fluids and waste. Only in the last stages do CWD's victims weaken, stagger, become emaciated and appear dazed.

The danger doesn't end when sick animals die. Prions in carcasses, urine and feces mix into soil and remain contagious for years, scientists have found.

No human case of chronic wasting disease has been found. Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against eating meat from an animal that tests positive.

Lab testing suggests chances are low, but not zero, that the disease could transmit to humans. CWD is similar to variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a rare, fatal prion illness in humans that scientists believe is contracted through eating brain and nerve tissue in "mad-cow" infected cattle.

Chronic wasting disease was discovered in Colorado in 1967 and has infiltrated 27 states, according to the National Wildlife Center, along with Canada, Finland, Norway, South Korea and Sweden.

It was first detected in Arkansas when a 2-year-old female elk killed in Newton County tested positive in February 2016. Soon after, Game and Fish staffers sampled 266 deer in Newton and neighboring Boone County, finding 23% infected.

National wildlife experts said then that Arkansas had one of the highest initial percentages of CWD-positive cases, suggesting that the disease had been in the state for years.

CWD "is one of the biggest wildlife management challenges we are facing as a country," said Dr. Jenn Ballard, Arkansas' wildlife veterinarian. "We are seeing more sick animals, which is certainly a concern. We are also seeing a decline of hunters getting animals tested."

After five years of working to contain the disease in Arkansas, "we can all get tired, but it is important to remain vigilant," Ballard said.


Until recently, no deer in Arkansas' southern half had tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Then on Nov. 13, a hunter at the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge on Union County's eastern border killed a healthy-seeming, 2½-year-old doe. The animal tested positive for CWD, the Game and Fish Commission announced Dec. 2.

The case reverberated, in part, because Union County is known as Arkansas' "Deer Factory."

During the 2020-21 season, hunters bagged 7,039 deer there, according to Game and Fish Commission records. That's well ahead of the second-highest venue, Arkadelphia's Clark County with 5,915. Randolph County, by comparison, recorded 3,211 deer during the same season.

Also unusual about the Union County case: the infected doe was found some 120 miles from the nearest known CWD case, in Issaquena County in Mississippi.

Arkansas wildlife experts are investigating what the Union County discovery means.

"An escaped captive is a possibility, but no ear-tags were present," Ballard said. The state is checking the infected animal against genetic databases for deer, hoping for clues.

Another prospect is the disease could have originated from human actions, perhaps someone unknowingly importing an infected animal or carcass, she said.

And it's also possible this first CWD case is part of a "significant outbreak not identified yet," Ballard said. "It could be from our state or an adjacent state."

The first CWD case identified in Randolph County involved an adult, 11-point buck, killed Nov. 14. Game and Fish announced the discovery Friday.

The animal was taken near Dalton, some 4.7 miles from the Arkansas-Missouri line. It was roughly 25 miles from the closest known CWD case, in Missouri's Oregon County, according to Game and Fish spokesman Spencer Griffith.

Game and Fish on Friday also announced three more first-case finds, all in counties already in the state's CWD Management Zone: Crawford, Franklin and Van Buren. The three counties adjoin others where chronic wasting disease cases previously have been found.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission staffers believe a stronger surveillance strategy over the past two seasons has allowed the agency to detect the disease more efficiently, Griffith said.

"Meeting our surveillance goals is allowing us to find new cases, and we want to find those cases," he said.


As Arkansas searches for more cases in Union County and across the state, Louisiana has already taken action.

In early December as the Union County case was announced, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission banned all supplemental feeding of animals -- including mineral and salt licks -- in Union County and Morehouse Parishes that border Arkansas and the El Dorado area. Louisiana, which tests far fewer deer for CWD than Arkansas, so far hasn't identified a single case.

"The purpose of this feeding ban is to reduce the potential for the spread of CWD into Louisiana by reducing the risk of exposure when deer are concentrated around feeding sites," according to a statement by Louisiana regulators.

Arkansas Game and Fish decision-makers are considering what to do next.

Several hunters and hunting store owners interviewed said their friends and customers generally don't like the idea of tighter restrictions on hunting or feeding deer coming to their counties.

Game and Fish staffers counter that measures in place now to curb CWD in Northwest Arkansas have some strong support. A 2018 survey by the agency found 63% deer hunters agree "that the Commission has implemented appropriate regulations to minimize CWD impacts, while only 9% disagree," according to the survey.

Feeding is one tricky issue. Attracting deer by setting out their favorite foods is called baiting in Arkansas when it takes place during hunting season. Feeding and baiting are popular among hunters and wildlife observers. Baiting also allows casual and young hunters to have early success in the sport, hunters say.

Wildlife management experts say the practice concentrates too many animals and can spread CWD.

Arkansas allows feeding and baiting on private land in counties outside the Northwest Arkansas CWD Management Zone. Inside the zone, feeding wildlife is generally prohibited, though baiting for deer and elk is allowed on private land between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31.

Other states' regulations vary. A 2019 survey of 13 Midwestern states by Game & Fish magazine, from Kentucky to North Dakota, Kansas to Ohio, found that seven had total bans on deer feeding or baiting. Six, like Arkansas, had partial bans, such as prohibiting feeding on public lands or in certain sections of the state.

[Chart showing disease reports by year not showing up above? Click here to see it »]

Arkansas Game and Fish also has taken steps to relax hunting quotas, or bag limits, in its CWD Management Zone.

Allowing hunters to kill more and younger deer in CWD-infected areas is considered a best practice by scientists. The animals don't tend to migrate as far when herds are less dense, scientists say. However, some hunters worry that this practice ultimately hurts their chances of bagging prized mature bucks.

While Arkansas Game and Fish urges hunters to test their deer kills for CWD, the commission generally doesn't require testing. Of 216,835 deer reported killed in this state in the 2020-21 season, according to Game and Fish data, 7,898 were tested.

Scientists acknowledge that chronic wasting disease is almost impossible to eradicate. It takes a decade of work to begin to see measurable progress, according to the state veterinarian. However, a few states, including Colorado and Illinois, believe they're seeing promising results from their long-term efforts.

Mahony, the El Dorado hunter and former Arkansas Game and Fish Commission member, said while he's no chronic wasting disease expert, he has "serious questions whether anybody can measure a significant slowing of the spread of the disease because of anything we've done" through regulation.

He worries that the state will enact best practices suggested by scientists that will hamper hunters, yet won't impact chronic wasting disease. "I sincerely hope I'm wrong," he said.

"Whatever we do," Mahony continued, the state needs to somehow persuade hunters to get on board.

It's important that state regulators "explain what they're doing and why, so the hunters will accept it as a logical and appropriate response."

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