Chronic Wasting Disease: TPWD ramping up containment efforts as deadly deer disease lands in East Texas

This photo by Marcus Constance and provided by the U.S. Forest Service, shows a white-tailed buck in the Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana during December 2020. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is offering a chance at a gift card for hunters and taxidermists who bring in the heads of mature bucks killed during the 2021-22 hunting season to be tested for chronic wasting disease. The slow but fatal disease has not been found in Louisiana but has shown up in all three adjacent states - Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. (Marcus Constance/U.S. Forest Service via AP)
This photo by Marcus Constance and provided by the U.S. Forest Service, shows a white-tailed buck in the Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana during December 2020. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is offering a chance at a gift card for hunters and taxidermists who bring in the heads of mature bucks killed during the 2021-22 hunting season to be tested for chronic wasting disease. The slow but fatal disease has not been found in Louisiana but has shown up in all three adjacent states - Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. (Marcus Constance/U.S. Forest Service via AP)Marcus Constance / Marcus Constance/Associated Press

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife staff are gearing up for another busy fall and winter with a long line of hunting seasons just around the corner.

As chronic wasting disease (CWD) sampling goes, this year could turn out to be the busiest and most costly ever as the state agency continues its war against a silent deer killer that continues to creep across the landscape.

CWD is a fatal neurological disease found in deer, elk, moose and other members of the deer family. Scientists believe it can be spread through animal to animal contact, release of bodily fluids and through contact with carcasses of infected animals.

The disease is slow to incubate. Infected animals may not show visible signs for several years. Advanced stage symptoms aren’t pretty.

Sickly animals may exhibit changes in behavior and appearance like emaciation, excessive salivation, lack of muscle coordination, difficulty in swallowing, excessive thirst and excessive urination.

CWD was first detected in the U.S. in 1967 in captive mule deer in Colorado. It has since been identified in 26 states and three Canadian provinces.

In 2012, the first Texas cases were documented in free-ranging mule near the Texas/New Mexico border. Roughly nine years later, the disease has been documented in 261 Texas deer in 14 different counties.

According to TPWD reports, 168 of those positives are linked to captive deer breeding facilities, 25 from release sites associated with those positive captive breeding facilities, and 68 in free-ranging deer populations.

TPWD says 57 of the free-range positives are in the Trans Pecos and Panhandle, with the remaining 11 in Medina and Val Verde counties. The movement of live deer is readily accepted as the greatest risk of spreading CWD.

With no vaccine or other known control method for CWD, wildlife officials across the country are faced with the tedious task of containing the spread of a disease that many fear could eventually threaten wild and captive deer herds, plus the wide range of economic cash cows they feed.

Here in Texas, home to nation’s largest wild white-tailed deer herd of 5.4 million animals and close to 700,000 hunters, deer hunting is believed to generate about $2.2 billion state’s economy, according to Alan Cain, TPWD’s white-tailed deer program leader.

Without it, deer hunting hotbeds found throughout the Hill Country, South Texas and beyond would be sure to feel the pinch. In Llano, widely known as the Deer Capital of Texas, deer hunting is believed to generate millions of dollars annually for a town of about 3,500 people.

Though not as valuable as the state’s wild herd, deer breeding is a lucrative industry in Texas, as well. Statewide, Cain said there are 873 permitted deer breeders with about 74,000 animals under permit by TPWD.

Containing the Spread

TPWD has been diligent in its efforts to monitor and contain CWD from the get-go. In 2012, the agency created the first CWD Zone requiring mandatory testing of all hunter harvested animals within a specific area. The decision came after testing of more than two dozen free ranging mule deer in far West Texas turned up a pair of positive CWD cases.

Testing on dead deer involves the removal of lymph nodes and/or brain tissue. Positive tests occur when CWD prion proteins are detected in those tissues.

Dozens of CWD positive deer have since shown up in other areas of the state. Likewise, the number CWD Zones in which mandatory testing of hunter harvested deer within those zones has steadily grown.

To date, there are seven CWD Zones around the state that encompass all or parts of 26 Texas counties, Cain said. Deer harvested within the zones must be sampled at designated CWD check-in facilities. The tissues are subsequently submitted for lab testing.

CWD lands in East Texas

Two new CWD Zones were added to the list in March, including one in Lubbock County and one in Hunt County. The Hunt County CWD Zone is the first for East Texas.

Cain said the Hunt County mandate was issued after five deer at a breeder facility near Quinlan tested positive for CWD. The zone includes portions of Hunt, Kaufman, Van Zandt and Rockwall counties.

TPWD will operate two check-in stations within the Hunt Co. CWD Zone, including a manned check station at 3381 State Highway 276 near Quinlan and a self-serve station at Gorman’s Meat Market at 1738 N. Frances St. in Terrell.

Cain said hunters using any self-serve check station should remove the head from the carcass and leave about 2-3 inches of the neck attached. Written instructions and receipts for proof of drop off are available on-site.

Hunters who harvest deer inside any CWD Zone are prohibited from transporting whole carcasses, or parts that contain spinal cord, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes, outside CWD zones or from another state or country where the disease exists.

Deer heads being transported to a taxidermist outside a CWD zone must be accompanied by a “deer head waiver” obtained at a CWD check station or from the department’s CWD website.

Proposed Rule Changes

TPWD’s efforts to slow the spread of the disease and to learn more about its distribution extend well beyond CWD Zones and check-in stations. In a September TPW Commission meeting, wildlife staff made several proposals aimed at tightening the noose on already restrictive deer movement rules and expensive live testing requirements that apply to the hundreds of deer breeding operations across the state.

Rule changes also were recommended for proof of sex requirements on deer and deer management permits. The proposals can be viewed at tpwd.texas.gov/business/feedback/public_comment/proposals/202111_proof.phtml. Public comments can be made through Nov. 3.

There also has been discussion among the TPW Commission about increasing CWD sampling of deer killed on properties operating under TPWD’s Managed Lands Deer Program.

A Costly Venture

If it sounds like CWD is a challenge for scientists to deal with, that’s because it is. It is also a super expensive battle to fight, one that is costing TPWD hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

To wit:

According to Cain, the agency sampled and tested about 13,154 animals statewide during the 2020-21 collection year. That’s well over the statewide sampling goal of 7,400 targeted annually under the current framework of TPWD’s Chronic Wasting Disease Management Plan.

The tally included 12,256 white-tailed deer, 715 mule deer, 152 exotics and 31 elk obtained for sampling through hunter harvest, road kills, locker plants and other means such as sick deer, poached deer or deer collected for training and research.

Each test cost the department $25. That alone is a $328,850 expense that doesn’t take into account staff salaries, equipment, freezers, fuel, check station facility rentals, signage, check station set-ups and other various expenses.

Cain said average cost of setting up a new check station is about $30,000. Existing check stations don’t cost as much because initial equipment purchases, signage, etc… can be used from one year to the next. However, it still takes a couple of biologists 2-3 weeks to ready a site for operation, which naturally pulls the away from other duties.

Additionally, manned check stations typically require at last 3-4 workers to function properly.

TPWD’s wildlife division doesn’t have the manpower to staff all of those positions. Likewise, the agency hires 25-30 seasonal workers each fall and divides them among the 10-12 manned check stations across the state. Most of the check stations are in operation for about five months.

The stations are in operation 10-12 hours per day, seven days per week depending on location. All manned check stations are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

The temporary positions pay about $16 per hour with a 40 hour work week. Cain said seasonal workers are often provided with lodging, which adds to the expense of fighting a battle that may never be won.

“Dealing with CWD takes an enormous amount of time and it is pushing our manpower past its limits — has been for a while now ” Cain said. “It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it could be spread out over the year, but since it is related to deer hunting and hunter harvested deer, we’ve got CWD sampling going on at the same time we’re conducting regulatory deer surveys, dealing with the MLD cooperators, doing spotlight counts, public hunts, etc…. We have to meet all those goals. We manage to get it done, but it definitely creates a burden at times.”

Call for Help

Unfortunately, it’s a problem not likely to go away anytime soon. According to Cain, volunteer hunter participation could go a long way towards helping prevent CWD from getting out of hand on the Texas landscape.

The biologist is encouraging hunters who shoot deer outside CWD Zones to voluntarily turn over samples for testing. Just contact an area wildlife biologist and make arrangements for the transfer. Testing won’t cost you anything.

Additionally, Cain recommends that hunters bury or properly dispose of deer carcasses in order prevent inadvertently spreading the disease. Don’t toss carcasses in the open woods or along roadways.

“We need to contain CWD where it is,” Cain said. “To do that we need hunters and landowners to step to the plate and help. The department can’t shoulder the burden on its own. We need hunters to give us CWD samples. The more samples and better distribution we can get the more confidence we can have knowing where the disease is and hopefully keep it that way.”