Florida deer population still free of chronic wasting disease

With the opening of archery and crossbow seasons over the weekend in Northwest Florida, hunters will want to be mindful of protecting the deer population from chronic wasting disease (CWD).

CWD is a contagious disease that attacks the brain and central nervous system in deer, elk, moose, caribou and other members of the deer family, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). CWD has been detected in 30 states but not yet in Florida.

The closest reported cases of CWD occurred in the northwest corner of Alabama among the free-range deer population, according to the National Wildlife Health Center. FWC and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is continuously monitoring the spread of this disease as it makes its way closer to Florida, particularly as hunters travel across state lines to hunt and then bring harvested game home.

CWD is highly contagious and always fatal to infected deer. Affected animals may not show signs for one-and-a-half to three years. In the final stage, infected deer appear skinny and sickly and have lost their natural weariness of people, according to FWC.

FWC has been monitoring CWD since 2002 by active surveillance of hunter-killed and road-killed deer and passively by performing necropsy on sick or diseased deer found dead of unknown causes. CWD is detected in brain stem tissue and lymph nodes from dead animals. FWC said there is currently no way to test live animals for the disease.

To help keep this degenerative disease out of Florida, FWC rules prohibit importing whole carcasses and high-risk parts of all species of the deer family. Hunters who intend to bring in harvested game from out-of-state may only bring in deboned meat, finished taxidermy mounts, clean hides and antlers, and skulls, skullcaps and teeth if all of the soft tissue has been removed.

The one exception to the rules is deer harvested from a property in Georgia or Alabama that is bisected by the Florida state line and under the same ownership may be imported into Florida.