Hanging on for Deer Life: How Chronic Wasting Disease Might Impact Florida and How Florida Law is Trying to Prevent its Spread into the State.

AuthorOlexa, Michael T.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is an infectious, degenerative disease that affects the Cervidae or cervid family, which includes elk, deer, moose, and other similar animals. (1) CWD belongs to the group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). (2) Other TSEs include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease), which is found in bovine, and Cretuzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) found in humans. (3) Although CWD has not been detected in Florida, (4) many are concerned about the potential negative effects of a CWD outbreak in Florida. In an effort to prevent the introduction and spread of CWD in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has implemented a new CWD prevention regulation. (5) This article addresses CWD, the Florida deer market, and the Florida CWD regulations.

About CWD

CWD was first discovered in captive deer at a Colorado research facility in the 1960s and was first detected in wild deer populations in 1981. (6) As of January 2020, 24 U.S. states have reported CWD in their free-range deer, elk, or moose herds. (7) In both free-range and captive herds, the number of states with CWD has grown to 26. (8) Similar to other TSEs, CWD is not spread via a virus or bacteria, but rather by misfolded proteins called prions. (9) Prion proteins cause healthy proteins to misfold, which damages the central nervous system of the infected animal. (10) As more healthy proteins convert to the misfolded form, neurons die, leading to body dysfunction and ultimately death. (11) Infected animals shed the misfolded prions in their feces, urine, and saliva, resulting in the exposure of other cervids to infection. (12) It is unclear whether humans can contract CWD. (13) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while "there is no strong evidence for the occurrence of CWD in people, and it is not known if people can get infected with CWD prions,... experimental studies raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD." (14) Although there is little, if any, evidence that CWD poses a risk to human health or is infective to humans (unlike BSE), the CDC recommends not eating CWD-infected animals. (15) In other words, the CDC is taking a precautionary approach.

Deer in Florida

Most of Florida's deer population comprises three native sub-species of white-tailed deer: Florida coastal white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Florida white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus seminolus), and Florida Key deer (Odocoileus virginiaus clavium). Unlike the other white-tailed deer in Florida, which are managed by the FWC, the endangered Key deer, found only in the lower Florida Keys, are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and are exempt from hunting in the state. (16) Another deer species in Florida is the non-native sambar deer (Rusa unicolor or Cervus unicolor), found on St. Vincent Island in Franklin County (introduced in 1908) and managed by the FWC. (17) As all deer species belong to the cervid family, all are susceptible to CWD.

Reports of large native Florida white-tailed deer populations date back to the late 1600s. (18) Due to unregulated hide trade in the 1700s and rural/urban development in the 1800s and early 1900s, Florida's native white-tailed deer population plummeted, (19) reaching its lowest numbers in the 1930s. (20) In 1941, the Florida Legislature voted to participate in the Federal-Aid-to-Wildlife program, which helped guarantee funds for wildlife management and established the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, the predecessor to the FWC. (21) Within its first decade, the commission purchased 2.5 million acres in an effort to restore white-tailed deer habitat. (22) By the 1960s, the commission's efforts were noticeable as deer numbers increased tenfold, with over 40,000 animals harvested annually. (23) In 1985, the Florida deer population hit 100,000, and in 2020, there was an estimated stable population of 700,000. (24) Today, FWC holds 5.8 million acres in wildlife management areas, which serve as state-managed habitat for deer and other Florida wildlife species. (25) Apart from the wildlife management area lands, early successional, forested, and agricultural lands also serve an important habitat for Florida deer.

In order to ensure a stable deer population, FWC regulates programs and policies to promote responsible deer management. As a keystone species, white-tailed deer are one of only a few wildlife species that will degrade their own habitat and the habitat of other species if not managed properly. (26) Overbrowsing by deer populations can cause damage to the environment, agricultural crops, and household gardens. (27) Additionally, the overabundance of deer and unnatural deer densities increases disease risk. (28) As such, the FWC walks a fine line between regulating deer habitat management and deer population management. (29)

The Deer Economy and CWD's Potential Economic Impacts

The deer economy in the U.S. is...

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