Farm advocates address FWC about chronic wasting disease

A deer with chronic wasting disease is seen here. [CONTRIBUTED]

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Local agricultural advocates recently addressed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision (FWC) regarding concerns and suggestions regarding chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Holmes and Washington counties continue to be the epi-center for CWD, a condition defined by FWC as “a contagious disease of the brain and central nervous system that is fatal to deer.”

The state’s first known case of the disease was detected in Holmes County after a road-killed 4.5-year-old female deer was sampled during routine surveillance activities and tested positive in June 2023. Since then, FWC has set up a CWD Management Zone, within which the agency has established sampling and special hunting regulations, including prohibiting feeding deer – also known as “baiting.” While food plots are still allowed, FWC banned placement of feed, grain or salt/mineral products within the zone, which includes the portion of Holmes, Washington, and Jackson counties north of Interstate 10, east of State Road 81, and west of U.S. Highway 231.

Holmes County Farm Bureau President Jeremy Rolling and Farm Bureau Board Member Wade Ellenburg traveled to Tallahassee to address FWC to highlight their concerns and to request a study be conducted on lifting the baiting ban.

“Holmes County is ground zero for CWD,” said Rolling. “The stopping of baiting has caused issues with people not wanting to hunt in Holmes County. They will go to the east or west where they can use feed.”

“This has caused the deer population to multiple, and it has caused extensive crop damage,” he added. “The vehicle insurance claims have increased in this county also.”

Rolling and Ellenburg suggested the study to re-open baiting and the possibility of cost sharing for high fence through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Services. 

“This would be especially helpful for produce growers,” he said. “Agriculture is the second largest industry in the state of Florida – second only behind tourism and with $7.6 billion in sales. As a result of chronic wasting disease, the deer population has exploded in the area, and farmers are feeling the effects of that.”

FWC officials told Rolling they would continue to work on solutions to increase deer harvest in the area, seeking national partnerships and collaborating with hunters and growers.

The agency also reported in a previous news release that as of November 2023, the results from 66 deer sampled from with the zone – nearly half of which were hunter-harvested – returned from laboratory testing as “CWD not-detected.” 

Nearly 400 samples from the zone have been tested since the initial detection of a CWD, thanks to the assistance of hunters in the area.

“Hunters are the key to success with our CWD response,” said George Warthen, FWC Director of Hunting and Game Management in a press release. 

“Without their support and involvement, we won’t be able to effectively slow the spread of CWD in Florida. I’m very grateful to all the hunters who have submitted samples and encourage even more participation in our no-cost CWD testing program.”

Area meat processors and taxidermists are also critical partners with the unified CWD response efforts. Currently, 12 businesses in the tri-county area are partnering with the FWC to provide samples for CWD testing.

“Having meat processors and taxidermists help with response has been a game changer for us,” said Warthen. 

“They provide a convenient one-stop location for hunters to have their harvest processed or taxidermy mounted and sampled for CWD testing at the same time.”