Chronic wasting disease of deer has been found in Southwestern Virginia, close enough to West Virginia’s most prized whitetail-producing counties to make wildlife officials nervous.
“CWD is an enormous concern for all wildlife agencies, including us,” said Division of Natural Resources wildlife chief Paul Johansen. “Anytime it shows up close to your border, it gets your attention.”
The recent discovery of a single CWD-positive deer in western Montgomery County, Virginia, touched off alarm bells in the Commonwealth.
A taxidermist working with the Virginia Department of Natural Resources sent a tissue sample from the deer to be analyzed. The sample tested positive for the disease, which causes sponge-like holes to develop in the brains of infected whitetails.
Deer affected by the malady become emaciated, gradually lose the ability to function, and die.
CWD had already been confirmed in other Virginia counties, but most of those were in the northwestern and north-central portions of the state. The Montgomery County case appears to be an outlier, 160 miles removed from any other CWD-positive whitetail so far discovered.
Virginia officials immediately set up regulations designed to contain the outbreak. They identified a “disease management area,” described by the borders of Montgomery, Pulaski and Floyd counties, and placed restrictions on deer feeding and deer-carcass movement inside that area.
The state’s Board of Wildlife Resources also approved changes to deer-hunting regulations in those counties. The changes include the creation or expansion of firearm seasons, mandatory checking of deer killed, and mandatory procedures for transporting meat from deer killed in the three counties.
Johansen called the measures “the appropriate course of action.”
“They’re smart to regulate carcass movement and the feeding of deer,” he added. “It’s going to be important for hunters and landowners to comply with those rules.”
The counties designated as disease-containment zones aren’t adjacent to the West Virginia border, but they’re not far from it. According to Megan Kirchgessner, wildlife veterinarian for the Virginia DWR, the infected deer was killed just 30 miles from the Monroe County, West Virginia, line.
More important, at least to West Virginia’s trophy-deer hunters, the northwest corner of the new CWD zone lies a similar distance from the McDowell County line.
McDowell is one of four bowhunting-only Mountain State counties. Since the late 1980s, McDowell, Wyoming, Logan and Mingo counties have produced the lion’s share of record-book-class bucks taken by hunters.
Perhaps fortunately for West Virginia, deer tend not to move as the crow flies. Jim Crum, the DNR’s deer project leader, said it’s possible that the high ridges of Virginia’s ridge-and-valley province might help to keep infected whitetails from moving northward.
“We’re thinking that the Allegheny Front [the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs roughly along the Virginia-West Virginia border] has helped to keep the disease from spreading [from CWD-positive counties in Virginia] into Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties,” he explained.
“Right now, [CWD is] right up against the base of [the front] on the east side. We’ll have to see what happens from there.”
Kirchgessner said she believes ridge-and-valley topography “has the potential to slow down the growth [of the disease], but is not a natural barrier.”
Kirchgessner said she and her agency will have a clearer picture of the disease’s prevalence in Virginia’s southwestern counties after the upcoming hunting season.
“We’ve planned a comprehensive surveillance plan for those three counties, and we’re going to elevate our level of surveillance in counties surrounding those three,” she explained. “I anticipate us testing more than 1,500 deer.”
Tissue samples for the tests will come from meat processers, taxidermists, roadkills and hunter-killed whitetails.
“On Nov. 13, the first day of our firearm season for deer, hunters who kill deer in Montgomery, Pulaski and Floyd counties will be required to check them at a sampling station,” Kirchgessner said.
“The data we get will give us a lot more information about how long the disease has been there, and possibly give us a better idea whether it’s connected somehow to the [counties where we already have CWD], or if it’s a separate focus.”
She said Giles and Bland counties, the two counties that lie between the containment zone and the West Virginia border, would receive enhanced surveillance.
Kenny Wilson, who represents southwestern West Virginia on the state Natural Resources commission, said that if CWD ever arrives in the bow-only counties, “it would be a devastating blow” to the area — and not just because of the deer herd.
“Our elk herd is located here too, and elk can get CWD just like deer can,” he continued.
West Virginia’s fledgling elk herd currently has fewer than 100 animals. Because elk tend to congregate at certain times of the year, CWD could more easily be transmitted from one individual to another.
“Something like that could set the elk [reintroduction] program back who-knows-how long,” Wilson said.
He believes the allure of trophy deer antlers would keep hunters coming to the area, but it might change their attitudes toward eating the animals they kill.
“There would need to be protocols on how hunters handle the meat and transport carcasses, just as there are in [the Eastern Panhandle’s CWD containment zone],” he said.
“I do think most people would be cautious about consuming the meat, and that might put some hunters at odds with the state’s wanton-waste law.”
That law, which went into effect in 2019, prohibits hunters from killing animals for their antlers or pelts and letting the meat go to waste.
DNR wildlife chief Johansen said the specter of having CWD pop up in a deer or elk population has natural-resource officials on edge everywhere.
“CWD has been identified north of Nashville, Tennessee, and that has the Kentucky folks concerned,” he added. “And certainly, we’re concerned about the situation in southwest Virginia.
“It’s the way the disease seems to work; on occasion, it pops up in strange places. We can paint all sorts of draconian what-if scenarios, but we sure hope it doesn’t end up in McDowell County.”