Bovine TB Testing

Hunting Regulations Icon Indiana Hunting

Hunters answered call in ’16 bovine TB surveillance


The DNR has a special message for deer hunters in southern Fayette, Franklin, and northern Dearborn counties.

Thank you for your incredible effort.

Cooperation in a bovine tuberculosis surveillance program in these counties last fall made it unnecessary to pay government biologists to cull additional mature bucks for testing.

“Hunters responded like they never have before, and it was mostly voluntary,” said DNR deer biologist Joe Caudell, PhD. “What we were looking at having to do probably would have cost upwards of a million dollars.”

Bovine tuberculosis is a chronic bacterial disease that affects primarily cattle, but can be transmitted to any warm-blooded animal and humans. While the disease usually is not fatal in deer, it may diminish an animal’s lifetime breeding productivity.

In July 2016, the disease showed up in a wild deer culled for testing from a Franklin County cattle farm affected by bovine tuberculosis.

Personnel with the Indiana Board of Animal Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services had been testing wildlife on the farm. It was one of three properties in Franklin County and one in Dearborn County where bovine tuberculosis had shown up in cattle and captive deer since 2008.

The DNR began a smaller white-tailed deer surveillance program for bovine tuberculosis in 2009.

The agency expanded the monitoring area and ramped up sampling efforts last year after finding the disease in a wild deer.

Surveillance involves collecting and testing lymph nodes from the necks of harvested deer.

The DNR set a goal of collecting between 850 and 2,700 samples from deer in Franklin, southern Fayette, and northern Dearborn counties. The wide range reflected the fact that not all deer are created equal when it comes to the science of disease monitoring. Older deer, especially older males, are more valuable for sampling.

Samples had to be collected from deer submitted for testing by hunters.

If the DNR didn’t reach its sampling goal, it would have needed to hire biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to shoot additional deer after the hunting season. That would have put additional pressure on the deer population. Moreover, biologists would have intentionally pursued mature bucks, making those sought-after deer unavailable to hunters next deer season.

Caudell didn’t know what type of response to expect from the hunters, especially when it came to volunteering mature bucks for sampling. He worried that some hunters wouldn’t want a DNR biologist cutting into the neck of their trophy deer.

On the contrary, hunter participation exceeded expectation.

Hunters submitted more than 2,000 deer for sampling, including hundreds of wall-hanger bucks. As an incentive, hunters who allowed sampling of a mature buck were given permission to take an additional mature buck.

Ultimately, none of the hunter-harvested deer tested positive for bovine tuberculosis.

Shawn McKee of Fishers volunteered two bucks for testing. McKee owns hunting property near Laurel in the Whitewater River valley, the epicenter of the bovine tuberculosis outbreak.

McKee said he got involved because he was worried about the health of the deer herd. Furthermore, he and many hunters in the area felt like participating in testing gave them some control over the process.

Nobody liked the idea of biologists having to come in after the season to kill additional deer.

“We, as hunters, needed to be a part of the solution,” McKee said.

Having the support of taxidermists and meat processors who were respected in the hunting community also was crucial, according to Caudell.

“They helped us even to the point that it slowed their business down,” Caudell said. “This really required them to do extra work, and they did it voluntarily.”

Tony Runtz of Hunter’s Choice Processing in Brookville said he helped hunters fill out paperwork. He also hung fliers about the testing program around his business, and stored deer heads in his freezer for future testing.

Perhaps most importantly, he helped clear up misconceptions.

“Hunters were scared,” he said. “They were afraid of people coming in and annihilating the deer. I kept reassuring them and telling them it wouldn’t happen.”

By working with taxidermists, the DNR was able to preserve both the skin and the lymph nodes on trophy bucks. That way the mounts were unaffected.

Because of the level of testing, it is likely that if bovine tuberculosis is present in wild deer in these areas, it probably exists at a level less than a quarter of 1 percent of the population.

Testing will resume this year but is expected to be on a smaller scale, assuming no additional positive deer are found.

“We’re going to be sampling again,” Caudell said, “and we need hunter cooperation again.”

Lead Ammo Can Fragment

Lead ammunition, especially when fired from rifles, can fragment into tiny pieces that spread throughout big game such as deer.

These fragments cannot all be removed during processing, and ground venison can have higher lead concentrations than whole muscle cuts.

Lead exposure has a well-documented negative impact on both humans and animals, affecting multiple organ systems. Lead exposure can cause health effects in both adults and children.

Lead levels in venison may not impact adults, unless lead-tainted meat is eaten frequently. Children are at a much higher risk to the effects of lead due to their developing bodies. Even low levels of lead in children, or in women who are pregnant, have been associated with decreased IQ, behavioral changes, and learning disabilities.

Hunters concerned about lead exposure for themselves and their families may want to follow this advice:

  • When purchasing ammunition for deer hunting, especially rifle ammunition, choose a non-lead alternative such as copper or a copper alloy.
  • If you choose to purchase lead ammunition, select ammunition the manufacturer indicates has high mass retention after impact.
  • When processing your harvest shot with lead ammunition, trim liberally around the wound channel to reduce exposure to lead fragments, and dispose of the carcass in a way that prevents wildlife from scavenging from it.
  • Be aware that some processors commingle meat from multiple harvested deer when producing ground venison, so ground meat may be lead-tainted even if your deer was harvested with non-lead ammunition.