LITTLE ROCK — Deer hunters in Arkansas have voluntarily provided more than 5,300 biological samples from harvested deer to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission so far this hunting season, helping AGFC to continue monitoring the distribution of chronic wasting disease in the state. With almost a month of the firearms deer season and two additional months of archery season left, new samples are still coming in on a daily basis.
“This is a huge increase over samples collected by this time during last year’s deer season,” said AJ Riggs, wildlife health biologist for the AGFC’s Research, Evaluation and Compliance Division. “For comparison, this same period for 2017, a total of 2,607 hunter harvested samples were collected.”
Riggs says the testing is all voluntary and free to hunters in the vast majority of cases.
“If a person takes their deer to one of our cooperating veterinarians, they may charge a fee for their time,” Riggs said. “But all of the other options for testing, which have received 99 percent of our samples, are totally free to hunters. It’s important that we’re offering this service to people who want to be sure about the deer’s status before taking it to a processor.”
The increase in samples has come despite a reduced number of manned testing locations during opening weekend of modern gun deer season this year. In 2017, the AGFC operated 17 temporary CWD sample stations on opening weekend, which garnered 459 samples to help investigate the prevalence and spread of the disease. This year only five such sites were manned by AGFC personnel, all in areas which recently had been added to the agency’s CWD Management Zone.
“We felt the amount of manpower used to staff those stations could be better used to gather samples through a different method,” Riggs said. “But it was important to have a place for staff to be able to talk one-on-one with hunters who arrived to turn in a sample or ask questions. That’s why we continued the stations in a few areas that recently were added to the CWD Management Zone. Our staff has really come together to communicate with the public and gather samples through every means possible.”
A large portion of the samples collected so far this year has come through the agency’s new system of unmanned CWD testing drop-off containers placed throughout the state.
“Staff are operating 44 freezers, mostly located inside the CWD Management Zone, but we do have locations throughout the state,” Riggs said. “We worked through the offseason to create partnerships with local municipalities to provide freezers where hunters could drop off samples throughout deer season, many of which are available 24 hours a day.”
The freezers are monitored to prevent vandalism or theft, but there have been no major issues so far and the response from the public has been excellent.
Dr. Jenn Ballard, state wildlife veterinarian for the AGFC, is very happy with the response from hunters and the quality of the samples submitted.
“It’s been incredible,” Ballard said. “People are using the freezers and we’ve received a lot of great responses from hunters about the convenience.”
Ballard hopes the AGFC can add additional drop-off containers in the next year to cover even more areas of the state.
“We have pretty well saturated the CWD Management Zone with drop-off locations,” Ballard said. “But we have already added four additional freezers this year.”
Ballard says the added drop-off locations came after a recent positive case of CWD appeared in Oregon County, Missouri, northeast of Arkansas’s CWD Management Zone.
“Dallas Harrell, one of the local AGFC biologists, worked with agencies in Fulton, Sharp and Randolph counties to establish four new sites for freezers and we’re trying to get the word out about those locations to hunters.”
As of Nov. 30, 155 new cases of CWD have been detected in the state from the increased sampling effort, which is consistent with previous years results if the increased volume of samples is taken into consideration. So far this year, one positive case of CWD came from an elk that was targeted because it showed signs of CWD, but no elk taken during this year’s elk hunts tested positive for the disease.
“So far, we have not detected any new positive cases outside of the existing CWD Management Zone,” Ballard said. “But the drop-off locations and other sampling methods will all be available until deer season ends at the end of February.”
Ballard says the results of these free CWD tests can take two to three weeks to process. As results are collected, they are listed on the AGFC’s website in a secure location and may be viewed by the person who submitted the sample.
“If a positive case of CWD is found in a new county and confirmed, we will issue a press release, but we’ve been fortunate so far this year,” Ballard said.