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By Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer

How serious is Chronic Wasting Disease, the highly contagious, always-fatal deer disease that has decimated herds in several states and is creeping ever closer to Tennessee?

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency calls it the biggest threat in the state’s 100-plus-year history of wildlife management.

In stepping up efforts to keep CWD out of Tennessee, the Fish & Wildlife Commission recently voted to expand the ban on harvested deer and elk imports. In the past, certain parts of deer and elk – un-boned meat, for example – could not be imported from the 25 states in which CWD is known to exist. The Commission’s proposal would ban imports from all states as an added precaution.

Submitted photo
TWRA officers inspect a deer for Chronic Wasting Disease.

CWD attacks the brain and spinal column of cervids (deer, elk and moose). It is not transmitted to humans, livestock or other wildlife.

Doug Markham, the TWRA Communications Manager, has launched an aggressive campaign to alert the public to the hazards of CWD and how to hopefully keep it out of the state. The TWRA has CWD link on its website (tnwildlife.org) explaining the gravity of the situation.

“When you start buying incinerators you know it’s serious,” says Markham, referring to how some states dispose of mounting piles of CWD-infected deer carcasses.

The disease has been found in 25 states and two Canadian provinces. It was first diagnosed in some Western states around 40 years ago and has gradually spread. CWD is now present in several states that border Tennessee: Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia and Mississippi.

Once the disease finds its way into an area there is no known way to eliminate it. All that can be done is dispose of infected animals and try to contain its spread.

Chuck Yoest, who is coordinating the Agency’s CWD campaign, says in some states CWD has decimated as much as 40 percent of the whitetail population.

Along with the TWRA website’s CWD link, Markham is posting advisories on social media outlets and broadcasting the message through electronic and print media.

“The key to containment is education and cooperation by hunters,” Markham says.

Yoest says biologists monitor the situation by taking samples of deer at checking stations, processing plants and taxidermist shops, and also checking road kills and other animals found dead.

Biologists don’t know the origination of CWD; one theory is that it mutated from some other disease. Infected animals exhibit abnormal behavior, lose motor skills, become emaciated and literally waste away. Anyone seeing a deer that exhibits such symptoms should contact the TWRA.

Markham notes that it’s not just deer hunters and state’s multi-million dollar deer-hunting industry that would be devastated by a CWD outbreak. The TWRA’s entire operation, which includes non-game species management and a wide array of other services, would be impacted. Already limited funds would have to be diverted to the CWD battle.

It would be a catastrophe that would impact every species, every phase of wildlife management, and the hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who enjoy the outdoors – from hunters to photographers and wildlife-watchers.

It is every outdoorsman’s worst nightmare.