CWD vigil intensifies: Henry County, Tenn., deer triggers Kentucky alert, measures

This whitetail doe — not a Kentucky deer — shows the symptoms of emaciation common to animals afflicted with chronic wasting disease, CWD.

If chronic wasting disease hasn’t hit the fan just yet, it has come dangerously close to those spinning blades.

This neurological disease that affects deer and other cervids (elk, moose and caribou, too) has been percolating in other states for decades and, while never identified in Kentucky, has been a growing concern as it has cropped up in surrounding states. Chronic wasting disease — please, let’s call it CWD — is a nasty disorder that deer and other critter victims don’t survive. It is not known to spin off and affect humans and/or other non-cervid wildlife or domestic livestock, yet it has the potential to damage or even devastate deer populations. Also, there is the uncertainty that there may be evils in CWD that we don’t yet realize.

What has happened in recent days is that a deer collected in in Henry County, Tenn., just 8 miles south of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, tested positive for CWD. An adult doe whitetail showed up looking thin and scruffy, exhibiting strange behavior. Its appearance was typical of an animal suffering from CWD, and multiple tests confirmed it.

The proximity of a CWD-positive deer to our commonwealth set off pre-poised alarm bells for Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources managers. The report from Tennessee, in fact, triggered a response plan that is almost 20 years in the making. Our managers have dreaded but, indeed, have been planning on dealing with such an unwelcome event.

While there still is no known CWD incidence in Kentucky, the fact that it has been diagnosed in a deer just 8 miles from the border south of Murray means realistically that it could be here. Tennessee previously has had multiple animals shown to be CWD positive, but those had been clustered primarily in the southwestern part of the state. The Henry County case represented a big jump northward. A far smaller expansion would put it among us.

One facet of the CWD readiness plan is that the KDFWR would institute more stringent measures in regard to monitoring and deer harvest regulation if and when any free-ranging deer within 15 miles of the Kentucky borders was identified as CWD positive. The Henry County, Tenn., deer touches that red alert button.

The incident triggers establishment of a CWD Surveillance Zone that now encompasses Calloway, Graves, Marshall, Fulton and Hickman counties in Kentucky. A radius from the source of the ailing deer takes in parts of the five counties, but simplicity in regulating dictates that the entirety of each county in included in the surveillance zone.

In regard to deer hunting, here’s what being in the zone means:

Baiting for deer and the feeding of wildlife in general is immediately prohibited. (And these measures are in effect now, enacted right away as emergency measures.) The prohibition also covers common habits of land managers and deer hunters such as mineral supplements and salt blocks for deer. The placement of anything that they would eat is prohibited. The provision is designed to prevent unnatural concentrations of deer and close muzzle-to-muzzle contact that potentially could allow CWD, if present, to spread.

Whole carcasses of harvested deer or parts containing brains and/or spinal columns of deer are prohibited from being exported from the zone. For example, you can’t take a deer in Marshall County, plop it into the back of your truck and haul it back to McCracken County.

That doesn’t mean somebody from outside the five-county zone can’t go there and hunt, even taking a deer there. The options are that a deer taken within the CWD Surveillance Zone can be transported within the zone, maybe hauled to a meat processor elsewhere in one of those five counties.

Another alternative for the do-it-yourselfer is processing a deer before it leaves the zone. That is, the regulations allow the export of de-boned meat and clean skull plates (the way to retrieve antlers for mounts) to locations outside the zone. The crux of this rule is that the skeletal structure including spinal material and the brains (elements most closely linked to spreading CWD) cannot be removed from the zone.

In addition, most firearms seasons within the CWD Surveillance Zone will require successful hunters to bring their harvested deer to designated check stations to have them tested for the potential CWD presence. Mandatory deer exams in the five-county zone will be in effect during the November modern firearms season, the October youth gun season and both October and December muzzleloader seasons.

Hunters should study developing details listed on the KDFWR website, KDFWR managers have been testing deer (and, in the East, elk) for CWD since 2002. Some 32,000 animals have been checked, and no Kentucky critter yet has been found to carry the ailment.

They’ve been trying to restrain this invisible barbarian outside the gates by preventing the import of whole animals from other states from which CWD might be imported. The scrutiny has been considerable.

But the positive test from the Henry County, Tenn., deer casts a shadow that looms across our southern border.

Wildlife managers and knowledgeable deer hunters may have been hoping against hope that this day would not come. But it has. We have not yet gone from heading off CWD to coping with it, yet we are close.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at

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