Chinquapin — Three men clad in gray T-shirts with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s hunter green logo huddled over the tailgate of a pickup. The truck was parked, partway inside the door of the commission’s Chinquapin equipment depot against the threat of imminent rain.
The tailgate remaining outside became a makeshift operating table. On it was the head of a buck, sans antlers. Luther Dean Maready, 56, had harvested the buck on opening day, Oct. 12.
This was Oct. 14. Scott McLean was taking a tissue sample to test for chronic wasting disease. CWD is 100 percent fatal to infected members of the Cervidae family, which includes ruminant mammals with antlers and is therefore alarming to hunters of big game – deer, elk and moose.
“CWD has been found in Virginia,” said McLean, the commission’s Holly Shelter Team Leader. “It hasn’t been found in North Carolina, and we hope we don’t find it.”
North Carolina last sampled deer for CWD in 2008. During this hunting season, biologists hope to sample brain tissue from 3,000 deer. The number of samples desired from each county was determined by taking into consideration the quality of deer habitat as well by spreading the samples across the 5-mile-by-5-mile grid system established by N.C. Forest Service maps. The project’s success also hinges on how many hunters donate deer heads and the ability of commission personnel to collect them.
“The number of samples we want varies by county,” McLean said. “In Pender County, we want 66 samples because it has so much good habitat, while in New Hanover County, we need only four because it is a small county with little habitat.”
Because of a recent Division of Wildlife Management reorganization, McLean was training two conservation technicians, Jerry Padgette and Kelvin Houston, stationed at the Chinquapin depot in sampling procedures. Formerly, they were boating technicians concerned mainly with access-area maintenance. Handling deer tissue samples was a new adventure.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything right,” Padgette said.
Maready said he was happy to help the study.
“Our club president told me about CWD before the hunt,” Maready said. “He said it was similar to mad cow disease. Then I shot the deer on Saturday afternoon, and Jerry came up and asked me to donate the head. If it’s going to kill the deer, I’m concerned about it. I wouldn’t eat a deer if I knew it had CWD.”
McLean said CWD does not infect humans and doesn’t harm the meat of infected deer. Nevertheless, any samples taken from a deer exhibiting symptoms such as listlessness or failing to eat or drink will receive priority.
Although several road-killed deer have been collected, hunters are the backbone of the project. The commission conducts CWD surveillance every five years, and McLean was involved in prior samplings.
McLean said CWD is not caused by a bacteria or virus, but by prions, which remain in the soil where they can infect other deer for as long as 10 years after an animal with the disease died.
To donate a deer head, hunters should contact N.C. Division of Wildlife Management (919-707-0050). Another option is visiting the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s website for the telephone number of the nearest wildlife depot. Hunter contacts are also initiated through the harvest reporting system. If a hunter has harvested a deer, a biologist or technician may call to ask the hunter to donate the head. Hunters who harvest deer after calling hours can place the head on ice, which keeps the sample valid about two days.