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In early January, TPWD received notice from the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa that a sample from a 14-month-old whitetail buck at the Kerr WMA submitted for CWD testing was “not confirmed.” The sample had previously been confirmed as “suspect positive” by two other labs. TPWD euthanized the facility’s entire research herd of 89 animals prior to confirmation by the national lab. TPWD Photo
TPWD euthanizes research facilitydeer herd prior to confirmation by national lab test
By Matt Williams
Just when you thought the story behind the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a penned deer at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Kerr Wildlife Management Area’s 23-acre research facility couldn’t get any more unfortunate, it did.
The good news is the 14-month old buck that tested “suspect positive” for CWD last fall was not infected with the disease after all. The bad news is TPWD staff opted to euthanize the facility’s entire research herd before the test results were confirmed by the National Veterinary Service Laboratory (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa.
Here’s what happened, according to TPWD reports:
= Not Confirmed
Last October, samples were collected from the buck during ante-mortem (live) testing performed at the Kerr. The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (WVDL) in Madison processed the sample. The test revealed suspect positive results that were subsequently confirmed by the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab (TVMDL) in College Station.
Following federal regulations, the WVDL forwarded the suspect-positive sample to the NVSL for confirmatory testing. The NVSL received postmortem samples of the suspect positive deer on Nov. 28, according to John Silovsky, TPWD’s wildlife division director.
On Jan. 4, TPWD received notice from the NVSL that the suspect positive results were “not confirmed.” The notice came as a huge surprise and a sickening disappointment to TPWD, all wrapped into one.
The surprise is that the TVMDL has submitted hundreds of samples to NVSL for CWD confirmation, and TPWD wildlife staff can’t recall a single one coming back unconfirmed.
“TVMDL has submitted more than 600 samples to NVSL for confirmation,” said Silovsky. “I can’t recall a time when TPWD has not received confirmation from NVSL following a suspect immunohistochemistry positive result. It is an extremely rare occurrence to not receive confirmation.”
The disappointing part is that TPWD euthanized the facility’s research herd — 38 bucks, 36 does and 15 fawns — based on a presumptive outcome of testing rather than waiting until testing on the suspect positive sample was confirmed by the national lab.
Silovsky defended the decision to depopulate the Kerr WMA herd without confirmation from the national lab. He says it was the responsible thing to do.
“The department felt it was essential to immediately eliminate the likelihood of amplifying any disease threat within the Kerr facility,” he said. “Additionally, that proactive measure reduced the risk of potentially transmitting CWD to the surrounding WMA and neighboring landowners.
A Hot Potato
TPWD has depopulated 13 breeding facilities since 2015 resulting in the demise of several thousand deer based on suspect positive confirmations of CWD from the national lab in Iowa. Roughly 260 of those animals have tested CWD positive in postmortem testing, according to Alan Cain, TPWD’s big game program leader.
Not surprisingly, TPWD’s depopulation orders and other CWD management policies have become controversial hot potatoes met with strong opposition more than once. And the potatoes are showing no signs of cooling off.
Some contend the state’s CWD restrictions are so badly over blown they threaten a $1.6 billion deer breeding industry, hurt real estate values and have a negative impact on deer hunting in general. At least one lawsuit is currently pending against the state agency.
Adding salt to the wound at the Kerr WMA is the fact TPWD had already been criticized for blowing what some perceived as a golden opportunity for CWD research by euthanizing all of the deer, and erasing nearly 50 years of research, rather than using the existing herd and double-fenced acreage as a place to learn more about the disease.
According to Silovsky, the facility does not have the necessary biosecurity measures in place to conduct research with CWD positive animals.
Located in Kerr County, the research facility was built in 1974. TPWD says the herd has been instrumental in learning nutritional, age and genetic relationships in deer. It has also supported wild deer herd management activities, outreach programs, trainings and the development of antler regulations across the state.
TPWD says deer were not routinely moved into or out of the facility after the initial stocking. Seven bucks from Central Texas were introduced to the facility in 2007, along with two fawns from the Kerr WMA in 2010, according to Ryan Reitz, project leader at the Kerr WMA.
Reitz said the facility was double fenced in 2022 to prevent nose-to-nose contact of deer outside the entire facility, as well other ruminants and feral swine. The property sits adjacent to the 6,400-acre Kerr WMA, where public hunting is allowed through the state’s drawn hunt program.
The hasty depopulation of the Kerr’s valuable deer herd doesn’t look good on TPWD, no matter how you spin it. The incident also has raised questions about CWD testing methods and the accuracy of those tests.
Nor did it look good when TPWD staff met with nearly a dozen key constituents on Jan. 18 to discuss CWD management strategies, but made no mention that the NVSL test had been returned as not confirmed roughly two weeks earlier. Instead, TPWD announced the finding in a press release that went out the very next day.
Silovsky offered several reasons as to why the information about the “not confirmed” test result was not disclosed to constituents representing the Texas Deer Association, Safari Club International, Texas Trophy Hunters Association and others during the Thursday afternoon meeting in San Antonio.
“The full Commission, nor all the staff had not yet been informed of the test results from NVSL,” Silovsky said. “The confirmation of the ante-mortem presumptive positive detection did not come up in the conversation. The discussion on the Kerr focused on what research opportunities may still be available and if any of the staff would be affected by not having deer in the research facility.”
Texas Deer Association Executive Director Kevin Davis attended the meeting. Davis, a retired TPWD game warden, said he was surprised by the timing of the announcement of the not confirmed test result, but was thankful for the opportunity to discuss CWD management strategies.
“I prefer to look forward, as we spent a significant amount of our time in the meeting discussing a pathway other than CWD zones for managing the disease in Texas,” Davis said. “Simply put, zones are no longer necessary to manage CWD as many new tools have become available since zones were established in 2012. All CWD management strategies can be utilized without any current or new zones.”
David also believes CWD zones place a negative label on land.
“Since their establishment, no zone has ever been removed,” he said. “Zones negatively affect real estate values, they harm landowners, they harm hunters, and they hurt recruitment of hunters and hunting opportunity. TPWD chose not to implement a zone at the Kerr WMA. They chose to continue public hunts, they kept hunter harvest sampling in place, and they chose to implement carcass handling rules. These practices were implemented without a zone. I am encouraged this approach can be applied across Texas, and we can stop the unnecessary labeling of land and protect hunting heritage for all Texans.”
CWD is a prion disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and other tissues of farmed and free-ranging deer, elk, and moose, according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention.
It may take over a year before an infected animal develops symptoms which can include drastic weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic signs. There are no known treatments or cures.
Scientists believe the disease is spread between animals through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food or water.
CWD was first found in 1967 in captive mule deer in Colorado. It has been documented in captive and free-ranging deer in 30 states and in Canada.
The first case in Texas was discovered in 2012 in a free-ranging mule deer in West Texas, according to TPWD. For more information on previous detections in Texas and current management practices for hunters and landowners, visit TPWD’s CWD page. For more information about the Kerr WMA and research projects visit Kerr WMA web page.