NASHVILLE — Tennessee wildlife officials are implementing a six-step emergency action plan, including an additional hunting season in part of the state, after chronic wasting disease was found this month.
The findings were a worst-case scenario for officials who have worked for several years to keep the fatal disease from reaching Tennessee. They have called it the biggest threat to the nation's deer population.
"[Chronic wasting] is one of the most significant events [TWRA has] dealt with in many, many years. It's found a way into Tennessee, and we're going to have to deal with that one way or another," said Ed Carter, executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. " We went into this assuming we would get a positive. We were preparing for that. We weren't ready for 10; that's kind of unprecedented. And then we find out we have three more."
Last week, 10 deer in West Tennessee preliminarily tested positive for chronic wasting disease. In response, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission — TWRA's governing body — called an emergency meeting Thursday to immediately vote into action a proposed plan.
As officials walked into the meeting, the announcement came that the previous findings had been confirmed and an additional three deer had tested positive for the disease.
Now, the plan is limited to high-risk counties in West Tennessee located within 10 miles of a positive test — Fayette, Hardeman and McNairy counties.
The new plan does the following:
' Creates a chronic wasting disease management zone with a core area, high-risk area and buffer area.
' Establishes a map of impacted counties (high-risk counties are Fayette, Hardeman and McNairy counties).
' Adds feeding restrictions on all wildlife in the high-risk area.
' Creates an additional hunting season for the high-risk area.
' Extends regulations for deer imported from out of state to counties in the high-risk area.
' Creates physical check stations for harvested deer in the high-risk area.
The plan addresses when and how deer can be harvested and transported from the affected zone, which has three sectors: core area, high-risk area and buffer area. The core area includes the entirety of any Tennessee county within five miles of the harvested deer that tested positive. That boundary stretches to 10 miles for the high-risk area and 25 miles for the buffer area.
The three counties in the high-risk area will undergo the changes before the end of the year. The state's attorney general and secretary of state are expected to sign the emergency regulations this week.
Deer harvested in the counties must have their meat removed from the bone before being moved outside the counties. The new rules also require antlers to have cleaned skulls, cleaned teeth, and taxidermy and antler products must be finished.
The commission also voted to restrict the feeding of wildlife within the high-risk area. Feed may not be left out with the exception of food that cannot reasonably be reached by deer, that is used for normal agricultural practices or is located within 100 feet of a residence.
Physical carcass check stations will be set up in the high-risk area on the weekends, and freezers will be set up for hunters who hunt during the week to store their harvest until it can be checked. These checks will be mandatory. TWRA will dedicate more resources to the high-risk area and enforce regulations. Check station locations will be posted soon at tn.gov/twra.html.
The additional hunting season will run from Jan. 7-Jan. 31 and include archery, muzzleloaders and guns. The new season will have a one-bag limit for antlered deer and no limit on antlerless deer. The new season will allow state officials to receive more samples, which can come only from dead deer. They hope to find, track and manage the CWD-positive population.
TWRA has been preparing for this possibility for three years. A committee researched the disease extensively by looking at how states with chronic wasting disease-positive herds have responded, talking to researchers, and drafting proposals and an action plan.
The team ramped up their response in the week leading up to the meeting after the initial positive tests. That included six days of late nights, little sleep and coordination to finalize a plan for the board — even when their building was evacuated Tuesday due to a fire alarm caused by elevator electrical equipment.
"Thanks goodness this was in place so that when we come to this point we're ready to make a decision," commission Chairman Jeff Cook said.
Harvested deer sampling increased tenfold the last two hunting seasons to ensure the disease would be found if and when it entered the state. New regulations were put in place this hunting season in hope of preventing the disease from reaching the state.
The agency is now relying on hunters to follow new regulations to help them manage the spread of the disease. Hunters are the most important partners in the effort, commissioners said.
"Our most valuable resource is the hunting public," said Dan Grove, an expert on chronic wasting who spoke to the commission. "Without them, we won't be able to achieve what we need to achieve. We'd rather use our hunters to get extra samples. It encourages them to be active in the management of deer herd, which they like to do anyway."
Grove previously worked in North Dakota, where they had a positive chronic wasting disease test while he was there. He also researched the disease in Colorado and Wisconsin. He is now a wildlife veterinarian with the University of Tennessee.
As for the funding of the program, chronic wasting disease prevention and awareness has been factored into the current TWRA budget. Officials now are pulling from those funds but said more money ultimately may be necessary.
They remain hopeful they can contain the disease through the new regulations and other counties won't be forced to deal with the same regulations. For now, they believe the only impact on other Tennessee counties will be an additional hunting season for those who choose to travel to the high-risk area and follow guidelines, said TWRA Deer Management Program Leader James Kelly.
The disease, which has been found in 25 states and three Canadian provinces, causes drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and other neurological symptoms before eventual death. It spreads through animal-to-animal contact, animal contact with a contaminated environment, and with contaminated feed or water sources. There is no treatment or vaccine to cure it. Scientists believe the disease is still contagious long after an infected animal is dead. It has no known risk to humans or livestock.
Grove had recommendations and some warnings for Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission members.
"You don't see the changes in a year," Grove said. "If you continue to do drastic changes every year, you'll never know if you're successful. You won't know until multiple years down the road.
"We're not going to see a fix in a year or five years; it may be 10 years."
This story was updated Dec. 20, 2018, at 4:56 p.m. with more information.