Lynn Burkhead — TPWD confirms CWD discovery in Hunt County

Herald Democrat

After years of nervously watching Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) appear in other parts of Texas, the deadly deer disease in now in Texomaland’s backyard.

That unsettling news comes with TPWD’s recent announcement that CWD has been discovered in Uvalde County once again, as well as in a deer breeding facility in nearby Hunt County.

That latter discovery marks the first time that the deadly scourge has been detected in Hunt County as well as the first time the malady has been found anywhere reasonably close to Texomaland.

The agency says that tissue samples were submitted by the deer breeding facilities as part of required CWD surveillance programs. The samples indicated the presence of CWD during testing at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL) in College Station on March 23 for the Uvalde County facility. A day later on March 24, the same facility confirmed CWD’s presence in the Hunt County facility.

TPWD says that the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa has since confirmed the CWD positive samples in both places, but the Hunt County sample is undergoing additional DNA testing to confirm animal identification and origin.

“Recent CWD discoveries in new locations across the state are deeply concerning and underscore the criticality of redoubling efforts to help arrest the spread of this disease,” said Carter Smith, TPWD’s executive director, in an agency news release. “While it is important to realize that CWD is still not widespread in Texas, complacency is not an option,” he added. “The only way to ensure we are effective in combating the further spread of CWD is with the active help of hunters, wildlife managers, deer breeders, and landowners.

“Clearly, it is imperative that we work together to protect our native deer populations to ensure the health and vitality of one of our state’s greatest natural resources.”

TPWD notes that state officials have taken immediate action to secure all deer at the Uvalde County and Hunt County deer breeding facilities. The agency also says in its news release that it plans to conduct additional investigations for CWD in those areas.

In addition, the agency notes that “…other breeding facilities that received deer from these facilities or shipped deer to these facilities during the last five years are under movement restrictions and cannot move or release deer at this time.”

TPWD does note that it is working together with the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) “…to determine the extent of the disease within the facilities and evaluate risks to Texas’ free ranging deer populations.”

The agency also points out that although state animal health and wildlife officials cannot determine how long or to what extent the disease has been present in these particular deer breeding facilities, both breeding facilities have active CWD surveillance programs with no positive samples detected until now.

What is CWD, you ask? It is a fatal disease that was first recognized in 1967 in captive mule deer in Colorado. Since that initial discovery, the disease has been documented in in captive and/or free-ranging deer in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. Those states include Oklahoma and Arkansas among others.

TPWD says that in Texas, the disease was first discovered in 2012 in free-ranging mule deer along a remote area of the Hueco Mountains near the Texas-New Mexico border. While that discovery wasn’t entirely surprising since the disease has existed for a number of years in nearby New Mexico, it was disheartening and ushered the disease into the Lone Star State for the first time.

Since then, TPWD says that Chronic Wasting Disease has been detected in 220 captive or free-ranging cervids, animals that include white-tailed deer, mule deer, red deer and elk in 11 Texas counties. While those numbers are disturbing, it should also be noted that they are a drop in the proverbial bucket — so far, at least — when one considers that the Texas white-tailed deer population has upwards of five million deer at last count.

But given the density of whitetails in many areas of the state, the mere thought of being unable to stop the spread of the disease through the Lone Star State’s deer herd is disturbing. That’s true because the disease is a neurological disease that is always fatal.

Equally concerning is that CWD — found across North America in certain cervids, including deer, elk, moose and other members of the deer family — is also slowly progressive and very difficult to initially detect.

That latter fact is due to CWD’s long incubation period, a time that TPWD notes that cervids infected with CWD may not show symptoms for years even though the animals are infected and spreading the disease.

As the disease progresses towards its final stages, animals with CWD show changes in behavior and appearance according to biologists. TPWD says that clinical signs may include “…progressive weight loss, stumbling or tremors with a lack of coordination, excessive thirst, salivation or urination, loss of appetite, teeth grinding, abnormal head posture, and/or drooping ears.”

While CWD isn’t known to pose any health risks to human beings or other non-cervid animals despite the decades that the prion disease has existed, the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. and the World Health Organization still recommend that no one consume meat that comes from CWD positive animals.

And while wild deer and elk herds haven’t been wiped out by the disease, their numbers have certainly been negatively impacted in areas where the diseases is heavily present.

That makes fighting and managing the disease a real challenge for wildlife biologists.

“The incubation period of CWD can span years creating disease management challenges,” said Dr. Andy Schwartz, TAHC state veterinarian, in the TPWD news release. “Response staff are diligently working to address each herd affected by these new detections to manage further spread.”

Obviously, this is not the kind of outdoors news that Texomaland’s deer hunting crowd wants to hear. While there’s only the one known case in Hunt County at the moment, the disease could eventually affect the region’s wild deer herds. If that were to be the case, there could be alterations to the area’s hunting regulations and movement restrictions like those currently found in other parts of the state.

For now, here’s hoping that the CWD discovery in Hunt County stays confined to the lone deer breeding facility that it was discovered in. We can certainly hope and pray for the best.

But only time will ultimately tell CWD’s story in North Texas, so stay tuned to the Herald Democrat Outdoors page for more details as they develop.

And finally, to learn more about Chronic Wasting Disease in Texas and elsewhere across North America, please visit TPWD’s website at https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/diseases/cwd.