Growing concern over a fatal brain disease in deer reported in some Western states has lawmakers and wildlife officials cooperating to postpone – if not block entirely – its spread into Mississippi.
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) creates sponge-like holes in the deer’s brain, causing the animal to grow thin, act abnormal and die.
There’s no scientific evidence the disease, currently incurable, can infect humans.
In 2002, Mississippi imposed a brief moratorium on the importation and intrastate movement of all deer and elk within state borders.
The Legislature is now moving to enact a ban on bringing white tailed deer and a moratorium on bringing elk, mule deer and similar animals that are considered susceptible to CWD into the state.
Bills passed last week in the Senate also authorize wildlife officials to conduct intensive testing of dead animals found on public and private lands. The bills now go to the House.
“The legislation gives us a better handle on preventing the disease from coming to the Southeast,” said Larry Castle, a wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Castle said Mississippi has many landowners who have fenced off areas and stocked them with deer purchased out of state. He said wildlife officials want that to stop while testing for CWD goes on.
He said CWD may take years to reach Mississippi.
“But it could be here tomorrow in the back of trailer. It is a very wise proposition for us to stop it,” Castle said.
In the past 10 years, chronic wasting disease has been found in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and in Canada.
To combat the disease, many states follow a policy of shooting any deer, even apparently healthy ones, that may have come into contact with a sick animal.
Senate Wildlife Committee Chairman Lynn Posey, D-Union Church, said lawmakers want wildlife officials to have a tough law on the books to attack CWD before it gets to Mississippi.
“A lot of these other states have gotten behind the eight ball and now they’re having to try to do things to prevent the spread. Our aim is to get ahead of the game,” Posey said.
Castle said killing off a herd when one of the deer is found with CWD is the best science known today. He said there is no test currently approved to detect the disease in live animals.
“We’ve got the luxury of being able to see what the other states – who have had the disease now for some 20-odd years – have done correctly and incorrectly,” Castle said.
DWFP began last year educating its wildlife personnel on what to watch for in potential CWD-carrying deer. Castle said the department is also relying on hunters to report any sick deer.
He said not all sick deer could have CWD because it mimics other sicknesses common to such animals.
“People are going to see sick deer all the time. We don’t want them to get alarmed just because they see a sick deer,” he said.
Nevertheless, Castle said all dead animals need to be tested.
“We’re also encouraging hunters and landowners to avoid practices that could potentially escalate the spread of the disease – like supplemental feeding or mineral licks that bring about an unnatural concentrating of deer,” Castle said.
Posey said CWD is highly contagious among the deer and elk populations.
“We’re trying to react on the front end of this thing and protect our native game animals from something being brought in here that has already been infected and then spreads the disease,” he said.
Castle said the testing begun last year and through the hunting season this year should give biologists a good idea whether CWD has shown up in Mississippi