Nature Notebook: Hunting season and CWD

Dylan Cooper - deer

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

October brings us the prime seasons for leaf color changes, pumpkin spice lattes, and… hunting! Every year my eagerness to get in the outdoors is peaked with the opening of archery season for deer in Virginia, this year occurring on Oct. 3. Some hunters choose to skip this early season for any number of reasons such as: to avoid the chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes; because they don’t own archery equipment; or because they don’t want to process a deer in the warmer weather. Fortunately for many of us archery hunters, the warmer weather has been much milder for 2020 with many crisp autumn mornings in the 40s and even 30s. With a hard frost yet to occur, the bugs may still be ravaging the archery hunter and game animal alike. 

What I love about archery season is that deer can still be predictable. If you use scouting cameras or do your own in-person scouting during the late summer, you’ve likely seen a doe with fawns or bachelor groups of bucks emerging from the woods for a food source on any given evening or on their morning ritual of returning to the woods after a long night of feeding. Capitalizing on this summer pattern can help you score a deer in the early season. I was able to do just that, twice, with a doe and a management buck harvest in the first two weeks of the season. I elected to take my harvests to a deer processor to avoid the concern of dealing with butchering a deer in the warmer temperatures. 

Mid-October usually brings changes to this predictable pattern. Bucks start to split off from bachelor groups and start seriously packing on the pounds preparing for the mating season, otherwise known as the rut or the worst time to drive a new car on a highway. The amount of daylight is decreasing fast. Green food sources like soybeans start to dry up. Much of the mast crop has fallen by this time. 

The Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR, formerly DGIF) has reported an average acorn crop this fall across all of Virginia for both red and white oaks. This is an especially important food for deer, turkey, squirrels and other game and non-game animals across the state. It’s also important for hunters who depend on the National Forest lands for their hunting location because acorns are a primary source of food for deer there. DWR did note that mountains in higher elevations and on northern or eastern slopes were extremely low on white oak acorns, but better on southern faces and lower to medium elevations. With the spottiness reported this year, it would be prudent of you to do some scouting to find out what the acorn crop is like in your hunting areas. 

An important element to be on the lookout for is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) which is now found in 24 U.S. states. First showing up in VA in 2009, CWD is a fatal disease in cervids (deer, elk, and moose) that is spread through abnormal proteins called prions. The prions pass between deer through saliva, urine, feces, and even indirectly through water or soil. This was the main reason for the banning of all deer attractants, minerals, or feed year round in Page County and most other counties in the region as it was an important step in helping to control the spread of CWD. The disease has not been confirmed to cross over to humans, but scientific studies have shown it can be contracted by monkeys, a close genetic relative, and mice.

Controlling CWD will likely be an impossible task since mankind can never completely control nature, but we can at least minimize our effects on facilitating its spread. Wyoming has seen a 10 percent annual decline in white-tailed deer populations mostly due to CWD. Colorado has seen 45 percent overall decline in mule deer in areas of highest prevalence of the disease. These are gruesome examples of what may come for VA’s white-tailed deer herd. DWR predicts that bucks are most likely to be hit the hardest by CWD because of their social nature and tendency to roam the landscape much more than does. They say that if a doe contracts CWD, it is concluded that CWD is then established throughout that area’s deer population. This is assumed because of a doe’s sedentary lifestyle and small social group makes it less likely to contract the disease.

Managing CWD can be a slippery slope. As part of their strategy, DWR wants to decrease deer population density in disease concern areas. This requires extra efforts from hunters, such as in the form of the Earn-a-Buck rule that forces a hunter to take a doe before their second buck can be harvested. From what was seen in Wisconsin and other states with CWD, a decline in hunting license sales is likely to occur when CWD becomes prevalent, thus leading to a decline in deer harvest. That in turn increases the deer density and thus increases the likelihood for spreading CWD even further. So we must continue to hunt even if CWD is found in our area but with added precautions

The 2019 hunting season exposed CWD cases in two new counties: Clarke (2 total) and Fauquier (1 total). Additional cases were found in Frederick (74 total) and Shenandoah (10 total), but no additional cases in Culpeper (1 total). This caused major changes to the Disease Management Areas as defined by DWR. DMA1 includes Clarke Frederick, Warren, and Shenandoah counties. DMA2 includes Page, Rappahannock, Fauquier, Culpeper, Orange, and Madison counties. Part of being included in a DMA enforces extra, complex regulations. It is now prohibited to transport deer carcasses or parts containing brain or spinal tissue from within one of these DMA2 counties to a non-DMA county. It is also prohibited to transport from a DMA1 county to a DMA2 county. Yet, it is permissible to transport from a DMA2 county to a DMA1 county.

All CWD mandatory sampling by DWR is cancelled for 2020 due to COVID-19. Voluntary sampling is still occurring and I urge you to do that if you hunt in any of the aforementioned counties. Submit only the deer’s head with four inches of the neck, caped or uncaped, and as fresh as possible. For instance, the location to take a Page County deer for testing is the Stanley Volunteer Fire Department. The testing is free in those counties. It helps collect scientific data for this important emerging disease. It gives you a peace of mind about what you are feeding yourself, family, or friends. Remember, it can take up to two years or more for a deer to show signs of CWD after contracting it. Out of all 68 positive cases reported as of 2019, only three deer had shown signs of emaciation, lack of fear, confusion, or disorientation. So just because a deer looks healthy, doesn’t mean it is not infected with CWD.

The first split of duck season is past us as well which ran from October 9th-12th. I was lucky to hunt the Shenandoah River on one of the four days with a friend, and we had no problem finding our limit of wood ducks. Other duck species were not present on our trip, and I heard similar results from other hunters around the valley. The next split of duck season is November 18th-29th.

One more noteworthy hunting topic is your ability to make changes to Virginia’s wildlife regulations. Now through December 11th, DWR has an online submission open for the public to comment on, suggest, or question any regulation on any species or any specific location. For instance, if you want to see more or less either-sex deer days on private lands in Page County, you can request just that. 

Not to be overlooked is the return to the state’s trout stocking program as of Oct. 1. If you were trout fishing last spring, you probably noticed DWR discontinued their daily reporting of which waters were stocked with trout. This was a tactic to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 between fishermen and staff because crowds were witnessed at many trout streams, ponds, and lakes with the large number of folks suddenly unemployed or forced to stay home from work. This fall, DWR has renewed the daily trout stocking announcements. Our local fishery of Hawksbill Creek saw a stocking on October 7.

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Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the state of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.   

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