What If CWD Comes To Georgia?

Chronic wasting disease has been found in border states. What should hunters expect to happen if Georgia finds a deer with CWD?

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | August 27, 2022

CWD has an incubation period of one to two years before deer show outwards signs of illness, so you cannot look at a deer and tell if it has CWD. This healthy-looking west Tennessee buck had been working scrapes and was scarred from fighting when Jonathan Morgan shot it last December, a few days after this trail-camera photo was taken. The buck tested positive for CWD.

They found it in Mississippi, then western Tennessee, then northwest Alabama, and now northwest North Carolina. It might be next year or it might be much longer, but yes, one day we are likely going to find chronic wasting disease in Georgia whitetails. I say this not to scare you but to prepare you, because it’s nothing to freak out about. We can still take many steps to delay that discovery, but we should also be ready to adjust to it and manage it from the very first day.

When new states like the ones listed above announce the discovery of CWD, the initial reaction among hunters in the state is surprise and even panic, and as the Chief Communications Officer for the National Deer Association, I’ve had a front-row seat. Misinformation flies as folks rush to social media to share overreactions to the news. Falsehoods spread through rumor. Many people take hearsay at face value instead of going directly to their state wildlife agencies for information and guidance. I hope Georgia never finds CWD in our deer, but if that day comes, I want us to do better. 

I want Georgia deer hunters to be ready to accept the news calmly and resolutely in the knowledge that we can cope with CWD and protect our whitetails if we are informed and engaged. Let’s look at ways we can still prevent its arrival, then how we will manage it if we can’t.

Can we still keep it out of Georgia?

Yes, we can. There are three ways it is most likely to arrive here, and we can block those pathways.

First, it can get here on wheels: In an infected live deer traveling illegally in a trailer. Georgia does not have a legal whitetail breeding industry (one of the reasons we’ve been able to avoid CWD as long as we have). It is illegal to import live deer of any species into this state. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Blackmarket transfers can and do happen. We can block this pathway through citizen action. If you learn of anyone attempting to cross the Georgia state line with live deer, call the T.I.P.S. hotline. If you know someone who already did this, report them to Georgia DNR Law Enforcement so they can investigate where those deer ended up.

Second, it can get here in the infected carcass of a hunter-harvested deer brought back to Georgia from another state. The cause of CWD, called “prions,” collects mostly in a deer’s nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen and other organs. If you hunt deer in any other state, you should return to Georgia with nothing more than boned-out venison, cleaned hides or capes, and antlers attached to a clean skull plate. In fact, it is now illegal to bring a whole deer carcass into Georgia from any other state, regardless of that state’s CWD status, thanks to the recent passage of House Bill 1148. If you killed that deer in another state’s CWD zone, then you should submit the head for CWD testing before you leave the area. If those results find CWD, then you should send the frozen venison in your freezer to a landfill for disposal by burial. By making sure no contaminated deer carcasses or venison are disposed in open woods in Georgia, where healthy deer may be exposed, we can block this second route.

Third, it can get here through natural deer movements, such as the one-time dispersal movements that most bucks make around age 1½, which average around five miles but can be much farther. It’s possible that’s how Alabama’s first case arrived, since the county where it was discovered borders both Mississippi and Tennessee and is near those states’ CWD zones. We can’t stop these natural movements, but we can help ensure that such spreading is discovered as quickly as possible, through voluntary testing of harvested deer in high-risk monitored areas and through reporting sick or strange-acting deer to DNR immediately.

This USGS map shows the distribution of CWD as of April 2022. From Georgia’s state border, the two nearest CWD discoveries in wild deer are 165 miles away in North Carolina and 135 miles to northwest Alabama. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky are the remaining Southeastern states that have not discovered CWD in deer as of July 2022.

What Is Chronic Wasting Disease?

CWD is a 100% fatal disease of deer, including whitetails, mule deer, elk and moose. There is currently no vaccine or cure for CWD. It has now been found in deer or elk in parts of 30 states.

There is no evidence CWD has been transmitted to humans, but experts still advise hunters to minimize risk by testing deer killed in known CWD areas and wait for results before eating the venison.

CWD is a neurological syndrome caused by prion proteins that slowly attack the brain of deer. The incubation period lasts one to two years on average before an individual deer begins to show outward symptoms of decline, but they can infect other deer the entire time.

Infectious prions can be spread from deer to deer in saliva, feces, urine, blood and other materials. Prions are non-living and very durable. When shed into the environment in fluids or deer carcasses, they can last years in the soil, can be taken up by plants through their roots, and remain infectious for a very long time.

Because of the one- to two-year incubation period, most deer with CWD appear healthy. Due to slow neurological decline, most infected deer die of other causes (predators, vehicle collisions, hunter harvest, etc.) before they reach the stage of visible sickness. Deer with CWD are three times more likely to die of these other causes than healthy deer.

Once CWD becomes established in a local area, it is impossible to eradicate with current tools and knowledge. Preventing it from reaching new areas is the most important weapon we have for now while scientists seek new ones.

What If We Can’t Stop it?

Let’s look past preventive measures and prepare for the possibility that those fail. Being ready for that day will make it much easier to manage CWD if it arrives. To be clear, Georgia has not discovered CWD. The following is merely an imaginary look into one potential future.

Georgia DNR already conducts routine CWD monitoring around the state by testing samples from sick deer and hunter-harvested deer. Using a hazard-prediction model developed by Cornell University’s Wildlife Health Lab, which identifies counties at greatest risk for finding CWD, the state allocates testing effort by county, but some deer from every county in the state have been tested each hunting season for over 20 years – a total of around 1,400 to 2,000 per year more recently. Let’s imagine one of those deer tests positive for CWD. What happens next?

In June, Georgia WRD’s state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster led a tabletop exercise for DNR staff to review contingency plans and actions the agency will take if CWD is discovered in Georgia. Leaders from Law Enforcement, Wildlife Resources and other DNR divisions participated. DNR Commissioner Mark Williams and Rep. Trey Rhodes, chairman of the Game, Fish & Parks Committee, also attended.

Phase One: Detecting The Size Of The Problem

First, DNR will want to get a firm handle on the scope of the outbreak. Are we talking about one deer that wandered across the state line in a long dispersal movement? Or did we just discover a hotspot that’s been simmering for a while and involves multiple infected deer? To find out, DNR will try to harvest and test as many deer in the vicinity of the first case as they can. If it’s discovered during hunting season, they’ll ask hunters in that area to help. If not, they may provide landowners in the area with special off-season hunting permits or ask permission from landowners for professional staff to shoot deer. Either way, this information is critical, so I recommend hunters and landowners help. The faster we respond, and the more deer we can harvest, the sooner we know the extent of the outbreak. 

Under no circumstances will DNR try to “eradicate” deer in the area. This is the cry that many misinformed people send up in these situations, and it is neither true nor helpful. Some deer must be harvested and tested, and the sooner we have more information from these new tests, the sooner a long-term plan can materialize for containing the outbreak.

Every CWD-positive deer killed during this phase is a win: It means one less sick deer spreading infectious prions. And if we don’t find any more positive deer in this recon phase, it means we caught the outbreak early, which is also excellent news. Based on this initial testing, DNR will designate a CWD management zone that will include any county or counties where infected deer were found and, likely, portions of additional counties that border them.

Phase Two: Holding The Infection Rates Low

The ultimate goal of Georgia DNR, like wildlife agencies in other states already dealing with CWD, will be to maintain low percentages of infected deer in the zone. We have no cure for CWD yet, but we know how to keep infection rates low, and it is working in actual CWD zones in other states. If we can do that, then deer populations in and around the outbreak zone will be able to continue supporting hunter harvest. In zones with high deer density, the density may be lowered intentionally in the zone to slow the deer-to-deer spread of the disease, but the population will remain strong enough to be productive and provide long-term, sustainable hunting opportunity. Certainly, hunters in these zones will not revert back to the days when seeing a deer track was an exciting event. 

The techniques for achieving low infection rates require information about how many deer are infected and where they are mostly located. That requires ongoing testing. Hunters who refuse to help, either by refusing to help meet deer harvest goals in the zone or refusing to submit their harvested deer for CWD testing, will only hurt themselves. That is a clear lesson I have learned from other states that are successfully managing CWD. By partnering with DNR to gather information, we help fight CWD, maintain low infection rates, and ensure continued hunting of healthy deer even inside the CWD management zone.

How long will this phase last? No one knows. The goal will be to continue holding infection rates low and minimize spreading to buy time for scientists to find a better solution. They are actively working now and learning more every day.

Other Changes

You can expect other immediate changes aimed at preventing the further spread of CWD within or out of the established zone, once that area is known. Again I emphasize, Georgia has not discovered CWD. The following is the likely “what if” scenario.

1. Carcass Transportation

Most importantly, hunters in the designated zone will be prohibited from taking whole deer carcasses outside the zone. Only boned-out venison, antlers, clean skull-plates, hides, clean jawbones and finished taxidermy should be transported. This is to prevent moving CWD prions into new areas. It can be an inconvenience, especially if your home, your deer processor or your favorite taxidermist is outside the CWD zone where you hunt, but it’s an important action to help avoid expanding the disease zone. DNR will likely set up carcass disposal sites inside the zone or provide other instructions on where to take them.

2. Testing Your Deer

Second, if you hunt in the CWD zone, you’ll be asked to submit samples from your harvested deer for testing. This will involve the collection of lymph nodes from the throat of the deer. DNR already has a plan on paper for quickly deploying refrigerated drop-boxes within two to four weeks of a CWD positive discovery, and you’ll simply leave the head of your deer in these drop-boxes along with your information. Manned check-stations might also be set up on popular weekends, like opening day or Thanksgiving. Whatever the method, if you end up hunting in such a zone—regardless of what state—help with surveillance by submitting all your deer for testing. DNR will likely provide replacement tags so that any deer you harvest that tests positive for CWD will not count against your season limit.

3. Wait For Test Results Before You Eat The Deer

Third, though not a regulation, you’ll be advised to freeze your venison and wait for test results before eating it. This is a precaution recommended by doctors and wildlife disease experts. There’s no evidence CWD has affected human health, but we cannot yet say the risk is zero. Wait for satisfactory test results, then enjoy your venison. If your deer tests positive, dispose of the frozen venison in a landfill or disposal site provided by DNR. 

As hunters in other states hit by CWD are learning, it’s disheartening to find out you should not eat a deer you killed because it tested positive for CWD. However, consider the other perspective: You removed an infected deer from the woods, and it will no longer spread the disease. You landed an important blow in the fight.

4. Feeding & Baiting

Georgia DNR has the authority to prohibit baiting of deer and feeding of all wildlife in any county where CWD is discovered. This authority was built in to the Georgia law that legalized hunting deer over bait. Georgia DNR may exercise this authority or take some other action to minimize the spread of disease at bait sites. Their exact course in this area may not be known until an actual outbreak occurs and its extent is known. CWD can be transmitted through saliva, urine, feces and other routes, all of which collect around feed sites, so most states prohibit baiting and feeding in CWD zones to reduce close contact among deer at feeders and bait stations. Even if baiting and feeding remain legal, the National Deer Association does not recommend hunters continue these practices in CWD management zones.

These and any other new rules may seem like a hardship and a drastic change from your accustomed hunting traditions and practices. That’s why prevention is so important! It’s to our advantage to block those CWD pathways I mentioned earlier. 

But if we can’t, these changes are minor annoyances in the big picture, and we will adapt to them. Hunters in many other states have already learned to live with CWD regulations. Deer hunting goes on in such zones. My boss, NDA’s CEO Nick Pinizzotto, actually bought a small hunting property in a CWD zone in Pennsylvania two years ago and, after two hunting seasons, says he made a good decision. Likewise, if CWD is ever found in Georgia, it will not mean the end of deer hunting. Mostly, it just means a change of perspective and a few adaptations. Most deer in CWD management zones remain healthy, productive and huntable. As long as hunters work in partnership with DNR to manage the disease, hunting will go on.

I’m still hopeful we can delay CWD’s arrival in Georgia for many years. But we must be vigilant and prepared in case it is discovered much sooner. Don’t wait for that day. Get plugged into Georgia’s wildlife agency now. Follow DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division on social media. Sign up for their free email newsletters. Get to know your local biologist and conservation law enforcement officers. These connections will pay dividends immediately, even if CWD is never found here.

As deer hunters, most of us already have the welfare of our beloved deer resource foremost in mind. That instinct will be called upon should CWD appear, and if it does, I’ll be working alongside you, as a fellow Georgia deer hunter, to fight this disease and continue protecting Georgia deer hunting into the future.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the Chief Communications Officer for the National Deer Association (formed in 2020 from the merger of QDMA and the National Deer Alliance). NDA is dedicated to ensuring the future of wild deer, wildlife habitat and hunting.

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