Will Deer Disease Deter Hunters?

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Chronic wasting disease (CWD) struck a blow to Arkansas’ wildlife when it was first detected earlier this year.

Because many aspects of the disease have eluded experts, that leaves the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) fighting an unfamiliar enemy.

However, they’ve taken steps built around what they’ve learned so far about CWD.

Few roots run deeper in Arkansas’ heritage than deer hunting. These roots grow stronger every time a hunter steps into the woods. No one knows that better than Brad Carner, head of the AGFC’s wildlife division.

“Deer hunting is huge,” he says. “I am a lifelong avid hunter. Ever since I was 10 or so.”

But in February came a threat to the sport he loves, in the form of CWD. The discovery nearly stopped Carner, and his agency, dead in their tracks.

“We knew that eventually it would make its way here but it was still a shock and some disbelief,” Carner continues.

Detection of chronic wasting in deer and elk left Carner and his team scrambling to put a game plan into action.

And just like how the neurological disease cripples the animal’s nervous system, Game & Fish feared its presence could also cripple the upcoming hunting season.

“What have you been doing in the past few months?,” we ask Cory Gray, the AGFC’s Deer Program Coordinator.

“We’re still gathering information right now,” he tells us.

Gray says there’s much about CWD they still don’t know, but Game & Fish moved forward with a response based on what they do know, relying on other CWD positive states to help guide it through unfamiliar territory.

The first step was setting up the CWD Management Zone. It includes the five counties (Newton, Boone, Carroll, Madison and Pope) where AGFC knows the disease has been found, with the Buffalo National River serving as ground zero. It also includes five more counties (Johnson, Logan, Marion, Searcy and Yell) adjacent to the counties with positive ID’s.

“It’s kind of like a needle in a haystack. You don’t know where to look until the needle pokes you, and then when it pokes you, you go ‘oh there’s the needle.’ And it’s the same way with this disease,” Gray explains.

Once they found where the disease is, it was time for Game & Fish to poke back, conducting a massive sampling operation that later found chronic wasting was a much bigger issue than originally thought.

“With a 23 percent prevalence rate, it’s been here for several decades. We’ve just not been able to find it,” adds Gray.

The commission’s final step is drawing up new deer regulations to slow the spread of disease. Educating hunters is a key component.

“We feel like we’ve laid out a good plan,” Carner says. “And, so really now it lies in the hunters’ hands to be able to execute our plan.”

“We’re not going to be able to eradicate this disease. It’s been here and it’s going to continue to be here. But if we can contain it to those five counties, then we’ll consider that a victory and we’ll take that victory,” says Gray.

Not fully knowing the long-term impact the disease may have on deer populations, or hunter participation, Gray and Carner head into the woods and into the unknown. They’re pacing themselves not for a sprint, but for a marathon to protect that hunting heritage they hold so dear.

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