A chronic wasting disease of deer has been discovered in southwest Virginia, close enough to West Virginia’s most prized deer-producing counties to make wildlife officials nervous.

“CWD is a huge concern for all wildlife agencies, including us,” said Natural Resources Division Chief Wildlife Officer Paul Johansen. “Whenever he appears near your border, he grabs your attention.”

The recent discovery of a single deer carrying CWD in western Montgomery County, Va., Has raised alarm bells in the Commonwealth.

A taxidermist working with the Virginia Department of Natural Resources sent a tissue sample from the deer for analysis. The sample tested positive for the disease, which causes sponge-like holes to develop in the brains of infected white deer.

Deer affected by the disease become emaciated, gradually lose their ability to function, and die.

MDC had previously been confirmed in other counties in Virginia, but most of them were in the northwest and north-central parts of the state. The Montgomery County case appears to be an outlier, 160 miles from any other CWD positive white-tailed deer discovered so far.

Authorities in Virginia immediately put regulations in place designed to contain the outbreak. They identified a “disease management zone,” described by the borders of Montgomery, Pulaski and Floyd counties, and imposed restrictions on deer feeding and the movement of deer carcasses within this zone. .

The State Wildlife Board has also approved changes to deer hunting regulations in these counties.

The changes include the creation or extension of gun seasons, mandatory verification of deer killed, and mandatory procedures for the transportation of meat from deer killed in the three counties.

Johansen called the measures “an appropriate course of action”.

“They are smart at regulating the movement of carcasses and deer feeding,” he added. “It’s going to be important that hunters and landowners obey these rules. “

The counties designated as disease containment zones are not adjacent to the West Virginia border, but they are not far from it.

According to Megan Kirchgessner, wildlife veterinarian for the Virginia DWR, the infected deer was killed just 30 miles from the line in Monroe County, West Virginia.

More importantly, at least for West Virginia deer trophy hunters, the northwest corner of the new CWD area is a similar distance from the McDowell County line.

McDowell is one of four counties in Mountain State exclusively for archery. Since the late 1980s, McDowell, Wyoming, Logan and Mingo counties have produced the lion’s share of record class males taken by hunters.

Fortunately for West Virginia, deer tend not to move as the crow flies. Jim Crum, DNR’s deer project manager, said it was possible that the high ridges in Ridge Province and Virginia Valley could help prevent infected white deer from moving north.

“We believe that the Front Allegheny [the Eastern Continental Divide, which runs roughly along the Virginia-West Virginia border] helped prevent the disease from spreading [from CWD-positive counties in Virginia] in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, ”he explained.

“At present, [CWD is] all against the base of [the front] on the east side. We’ll have to see what happens from there.

Kirchgessner said she believed the topography of ridges and valleys “has the potential to slow growth [of the disease], but is not a natural barrier.

Kirchgessner said she and her agency will have a clearer picture of the prevalence of the disease in southwest Virginia counties after the next hunting season.

“We have planned a comprehensive surveillance plan for these three counties, and we will raise our level of surveillance in the counties surrounding these three,” she explained. “I plan to test over 1,500 deer.”

Tissue samples for testing will come from meat processors, taxidermists, road fatalities, and white deer killed by hunters.

“On November 13, the first day of our deer gun season, hunters who kill deer in Montgomery, Pulaski and Floyd counties will be required to check them at a sampling station,” Kirchgessner said. .

“The data we get will give us a lot more information about the duration of the disease and maybe give us a better idea if it is somehow related to the disease. [counties where we already have CWD], or if it is a separate objective.

She said Giles and Bland counties, the two counties between the containment zone and the West Virginia border, would benefit from increased surveillance.

Kenny Wilson, who represents southwest West Virginia on the state’s natural resources commission, said if the CWD ever made it to the arc-only counties, “it would be a devastating blow.” for the region – and not just because of the deer herd.

“Our elk herd is here too, and elk can get CWD just like deer,” he continued.

West Virginia’s fledgling elk herd currently numbers less than 100 animals. Since elk tend to congregate at certain times of the year, CWD could more easily be passed from individual to individual.

“Something like that could put the elk [reintroduction] program back who knows how long, ”Wilson said.

He believes the allure of the trophy deer antlers would entice hunters to come to the area, but it could change their attitude towards consuming the animals they kill.

“There should be protocols on how hunters handle meat and transport carcasses, just as there are in [the Eastern Panhandle’s CWD containment zone],” he said.

“I think most people would be cautious about consuming meat, which could bring some hunters into conflict with the state’s indiscriminate waste law.”

This law, which came into force in 2019, prohibits hunters from killing animals for their antlers or fur and letting the meat go to waste.

MNR wildlife chief Johansen said the specter of a CWD outbreak in a deer or elk population is everywhere putting natural resources officials on the prowl.

“CWD has been identified north of Nashville, Tennessee, and that worries the people of Kentucky,” he added. “And certainly, we are concerned about the situation in Southwest Virginia.

“This is the way the disease seems to work; occasionally it appears in strange places. We can paint all kinds of draconian what-if scenarios, but we sure hope it doesn’t end in McDowell County. “