CWD in Alabama
Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s (WFF) chronic wasting disease (CWD) surveillance efforts during the 2022–23 hunting season detected CWD in samples collected from a 4.5 year old hunter harvested buck killed in Lauderdale County. This was the third CWD positive deer found in Alabama since WFF began conducting surveillance for the disease in 2002. All three of the CWD-positives have been found in central Lauderdale County and all three have been hunter harvested adult bucks.
WFF first began conducting surveillance for CWD in wild deer during the 2001–02 hunting season following the discovery of the disease in Wisconsin. Since then, over 18,100 samples have been tested from all around the state, including over 3,600 deer between October 2022 and March 2023. Sampling efforts were increased significantly across Alabama, especially in the state’s northwestern counties, following the discovery of CWD in northern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee in 2018.
After the discovery of the first CWD positive deer in Lauderdale County, WFF implemented portions of its CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan (SSRP). Part of its response included establishing an Emergency Regulation with rules to help increase availability of samples for testing and reduce the likelihood of introducing CWD into unaffected areas.
The Emergency Regulation established the CWD Management Zone (CMZ). The original CMZ included all of Lauderdale and Colbert Counties. Within the CMZ, the portion of Lauderdale County west of U.S. Highway 43 was designated as the High-Risk Zone (HRZ). The remaining portion of Lauderdale County east of U.S. Hwy. 43 and all of Colbert County was designated as the Buffer Zone (BZ).
While the second and third CWD positive deer detected in Lauderdale County were within the HRZ, both were within 5 miles of the southern and eastern boundaries of the HRZ. WFF has modified the boundaries of the HRZ and BZ for the 2023–24 season due to the proximity of these two positives to the HRZ boundaries and to remain consistent with guidelines detailed in the WFF’s CWD SSRP. The new HRZ will include all of Lauderdale County and extend into Colbert County running with a boundary along US Hwy. 72 from the Alabama-Mississippi line to US Hwy. 72 Alt. to the Colbert-Lawrence County line (Town Creek), then north along the county line (Town Creek) to the Tennessee River.
The suspension of feeding and baiting of wildlife within the CMZ remains in place. The only exceptions to the suspension are: 1) seed or grain used solely for normal agricultural, forest management, or wildlife food plot production purposes, 2) feed solely placed inside an active hog trap, or 3) feed for attracting birds and squirrels with common bird and squirrel feeders within 100 feet of a residence or occupied dwelling.
CWD in Alabama will eventually spread. The infectious prions which cause the disease are found in saliva, feces, urine, reproductive material, and decaying carcasses. Practices which congregate deer, such as feeding and baiting, have the potential to increase disease. Suspending feeding and baiting of wildlife within the CMZ helps reduce unnatural concentrations of deer. The current feeding ban in the CMZ is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Movement of whole deer carcasses and high-risk deer body parts out of the CMZ also remains illegal. Research suggests CWD can be passed from infected deer to healthy deer through contact with feces, urine, or saliva as well as contact with CWD-infected carcasses or contaminated soil. Complying with current regulations restricting the movement of deer carcasses and high-risk parts (e. g., whole heads, brain and spinal cord tissues, large bones, etc.) from the HRZ and CMZ can help prevent the introduction of CWD into new areas.
Now is a great time to rethink future plans for managing deer and their habitat inside and outside of the CMZ. Another key step for many may be reducing deer numbers to levels that the existing habitat can support in the absence of supplemental feeding. Implementing additional habitat management practices to improve deer habitat quality, such as timber harvests and prescribed fire, can greatly increase year-round habitat quality for deer and other wildlife. These practices require planning and effort well ahead of the next hunting season. An option available to landowners and hunting clubs interested in obtaining assistance with developing a long-term deer management plan for their property is to work with a WFF wildlife biologist through Alabama’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). To find out more about DMAP, contact your local WFF District Office.
Obtaining samples for CWD testing from hunter harvested deer is the most efficient way to obtain enough samples to meet surveillance goals from all counties. Continued sampling of deer from within the CMZ will provide a clearer picture of not only the current prevalence of CWD among the local population, but also the distribution of the disease within the CMZ. Continued sampling of deer outside the CMZ also is essential for early detection of the disease in new areas.
Everyone can help WFF’s CWD management efforts by reporting sick or dead deer. Adult deer exhibiting symptoms that may be related to CWD are the highest priority for testing, especially those showing neurological symptoms. Sick deer can be reported at www.outdooralabama.com/ReportSickDeer or by calling the closest WFF District Office.
As CWD continues to spread, wildlife agencies across the U.S. are faced with unique challenges when attempting to manage the disease, including how to keep the number of diseased deer to a minimum in CWD-positive areas, reduce disease rates in affected areas when possible, and keep CWD from spreading into other areas of their states. For this to happen, deer hunters in affected areas, as well as hunters in other regions, must remain involved and informed. Hunters must also comply with rules in the CMZ for them to be effective. Most importantly, deer hunters must keep hunting. For more information on CWD in Alabama, visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info.