LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Arkansas is a recent one.
Wildlife experts know a marathon of a challenge lies ahead to protect the state’s deer herd and celebrated hunting heritage.
Because the unknowns outnumber the knowns with CWD, it’s difficult to predict the true threat it poses.
When deer hunters set off into the woods this Fall, they won’t be the only predator that targets their prey. Locked in the crosshairs of CWD is the state’s deer population and the hunting industry that relies on it.
“This disease bomb was dropped on us,” says Cory Gray, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) deer program coordinator. “I’m hoping maybe November, December, to have my time in the woods.”
Gray knows familiarity is the best way to take out a target, but with CWD, that’s far from the case.
“There are many unknowns in this equation,” Gray says.
Like if the neurological disease will have a limiting effect on Arkansas deer, or affect any other species. There’s also the issue of the impact on hunters’ habits, where, how, or even if they’ll hunt this season.
“We don’t know how hunters are going to respond,” he adds.
Deer hunting is part of billion dollar industry in Arkansas. According to Brad Carner, head of the AGFC’s wildlife division, virtually all of the state’s hunters take part in deer season.
“Most states have indicated they have initially seen a decline in hunter numbers after the detection of CWD,” he says.
That could mean a loss in revenue not just from selling fewer hunting licenses, but a trickle down effect for processors, retailers, and everyone else in the business of deer hunting.
“Small communities depend on the revenue that’s generated from hunters, deer hunters,” Carner explains.
“I never heard anybody say I’m not going to participate this year, or not go hunting at all because of that,” says Taylor Denniston, manager at Fort Thompson. “It was more like, I need to figure out if I can eat it. If it’s safe.”
It’s a question fo which experts don’t yet have a clear answer. Because much still isn’t known about chronic wasting, both the CDC and World Health Organization advise to not eat or handle meat from a deer that appears sickly.
“But there is no direct link that this disease can be transmitted to humans,” Gray says.
To help hunters eliminate that doubt, the AGFC will offer 25 free testing sites within the CWD zone during modern gun season’s opening weekend.
“During deer season, if you come across a sick animal, obviously sick, then take that animal,” he adds. “But let us test it as well.”
It’s a key role hunters can play in disease management. But the question that will likely take the longest to solve is what impacts could CWD have on Arkansas’ deer herd for years to come?
“We just don’t know those things right now,” says Dr. Margaret Wild, chief wildlife vet for the National Parks Service, who’s working with the state on its CWD efforts.
“We’re collecting a variety of samples,” she explains.
And with estimates that nearly a quarter of Arkansas’ deer are infected with the disease.
“It’s going to be an issue that you all will be dealing with for a long time,” says Wild.
It leaves those like Cory Gray with Game & Fish to manage not just wildlife but also expectations.
“It all depends on what your definition of victory is. If it’s trying to eradicate CWD from Arkansas, then that war’s not winnable. But if I can maintain prevalence, and contain it, then that’s where I need to hang my hat,” Gray explains.
Arkansas is heading into hunting season with many unknowns, but one thing quite clear is that the state is not out of the woods just yet.
In addition to Game & Fish sanctioned testing during modern gun opening weekend, dozens of private veterinarians statewide are volunteering to test hunters’ kills throughout the season.
Click here for a full list of those vets.