Mississippi's and Tennessee's first known cases of chronic wasting disease were discovered in 2018. It has since been found in multiple counties and landowners in the worst of it are seeing first-hand the toll it takes on deer.
Terry Abby of Walnut, Mississippi, owns hunting land in Benton County that extends into Hardeman County, Tennessee. It seemed to be a deer hunter's paradise when he purchased it.
"I bought that place six years ago," Abby said. "We had more deer than you could shake a stick at.
"You could see eight to 10 bucks anytime you wanted to go. I've seen as high as 15."
The quality of the bucks on Abby's property was even more impressive than the numbers. Hoping they would grow even larger, Abby was passing on bucks with racks larger than some hunters ever encounter.
"We had 150s all day long three years ago," Abby said. "That's why we let a lot of them go."
In 2018, CWD was found in Hardeman County and soon after in Benton County. Since then, it's been a different story for Abby. His property is located in Mississippi's and Tennessee's wheelhouse of CWD. Of the 127 confirmed cases of CWD in Mississippi, 83 were found in Benton County and the majority near the Tennessee border.
In Tennessee, Hardeman County has the second highest rate of prevalence of the disease in the state with adjoining Fayette County having the highest.
The disease is always fatal and is caused by abnormally folded proteins known as prions. Prions are transmitted by direct and indirect contact between deer. When prions infect a deer, they cause normal proteins to become abnormal and they effectively eat holes in the infected animal's brain.
Mature bucks hard-hit by CWD
Because of the social behavior of bucks, they are infected at a higher rate than does.
"They just disappeared," Abby said. "The last three years it has declined to nothing.
"We haven't seen any mature deer this year at all. All we've seen is small bucks. We'd have 180s right now if it weren't for CWD."
Abby said the decline isn't limited to mature bucks. He said he isn't seeing many deer of either sex on his land.
What he is seeing are dead deer. Abby said he's found several skeletons of deer this year that appeared to have died during summer, but couldn't determine the cause. Abby said he climbed into a stand last week just to watch for sick deer when he found another.
"There was a dead doe laying in one of my lanes," Abby said. "You couldn't tell a whole lot, but she looked sick, no doubt."
Abby wanted to have the doe tested for CWD, but didn't have a knife with him to remove the head. He returned the next day and found scavengers had eaten the deer.
Leland Ray of the Hopewell community in Benton County owns property next to Abby's and his story is similar.
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Decline in deer population
"I got some green fields I sow every year," Ray said. "Three years ago I could sit in that stand and we could see 15-20 deer, but we never saw any big, old bucks.
"We knew we had them because we had them on camera. Last year I saw about about half that many. This year we saw one deer in that greenfield."
On camera, it's been the same in recent years. Ray said he would have images of a number of mature eight-points and 10-points prior to three years ago. Now, he has none.
"I guess it's working on those big mature bucks more than the little ones because I'm still seeing little three-points and four-points, but just a few of them," Ray said. "I'm not seeing any big bucks; eight-points and 10-points. It hasn't happened to just me. It's happened to everybody in this community."
Just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee state line is Ames Research and Education Center which is a part of the University of Tennessee AgResearch and Education Program. The 18,500-acre facility is located near Grand Junction and is managed by UT biologist and professor Allan Houston.
In addition to education and research, it offers hunting opportunities, but being in the epicenter of Mississippi's and Tennessee's CWD outbreak, the hunting experience isn't what it once was.
"I live right here and do research and teach and manage," Houston said. "We're sitting right in the middle of the mess.
"It came right across us. It swept through the herd pretty darn quickly."
CWD likely on landscape years before discovery
Houston said he began hearing a complaint here and there about fewer deer sightings a few years before CWD was discovered in the area, but a complaint here and there doesn't raise any eyebrows. When he started hearing from hunters who had hunted the property for many years say they were seeing fewer deer, he began thinking the number of does removed from the herd needed to be reduced, but the situation didn't improve.
When he heard CWD was discovered in Mississippi in 2018, he realized there was a real problem and it appears it had gone undetected for years.
"The termites were working through the wood before anyone knew they were here," Houston said. "I feel it was there 10 years before discovery.
"That's just a flat guess. I have nothing to base that on except what I hear from the experts."
High rate of CWD infection in deer
However, long it's been on the landscape, it's been there long enough to see a significant impact and high prevalence. Houston said every deer that is harvested at Ames is tested for CWD and the percentages of infected animals are revealing.
"Here at Ames it's running about a third this year," Houston said. "Last year it was 50% of the hunter-killed deer."
And the result mirrors the observations of Abby and Ray.
"What has happened is what I expected would happen," Houston said. "You should have a herd that's younger and smaller."
There is no cure or vaccine for CWD, so for now, the best management practice is slowing its spread. Mississippi and Tennessee, like other states with CWD, have regulations in place to slow transmission such as bans on man-made mineral sites and supplemental feeding in CWD management zones.
Houston said hunters need to educate themselves and take regulations seriously.
"Understand the guidelines," Houston said. "Understand it's serious.
"The deer are sick. The deer are dying. It's serious. It's real. It's here."
Contact Brian Broom at firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-961-7225.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: CWD takes toll on deer in Mississippi and Tennessee