Wasting disease prompts extreme measures

With fawn season approaching quickly for whitetail deer, the conversation of deer population management might have a different tone with the slowly expanding threat of chronic wasting disease.

In response to a positive case detected in Shenandoah County in late February, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries expanded its containment area to include all of Frederick, Shenandoah, Clarke and Warren counties.

As a result, licensed veterinary rehabilitators within those counties were notified in an April 13 memo from the department that they could no longer rehabilitate young deer — or fawns — in those counties.

Department Deer Project Coordinator Nelson Lafon noted that this mandate is an expansion of an existing policy the department has had in place for years.

According the department’s 2012-13 chronic wasting management plan, the rehab prohibition within the containment area dates back to 2010 — just one year after the disease was first detected in the state.

Tracy Furr, a licensed fawn rehabber through the department, noted that all fawns “are going to be basically euthanized” rather than treated for reintroduction.

According to Lafon, this prohibition applies to all “truly orphaned,” injured and sick fawns that are turned over to rehabilitators. He added that only a “small percentage” of fawns are “truly orphaned.”

“There is a risk in allowing someone to take in a fawn … and commingle it with other deer that they are rehabbing and then re-releasing that deer back on the landscape,” Lafon said.

Dr. Belinda Burwell, of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce, explained, “A fawn could be carrying this disease, but be perfectly healthy. In rehab, the fawns are generally grouped together.”

This contact, Burwell noted, has “the potential to spread the disease much more widely and much more quickly.”

To carry out the euthanasia for young fawns, Lafon noted that the department relies on a variety of sources and methods between licensed veterinarians and wildlife conservation officers.

Dr. Dave McRuer, director of veterinary services for the Wildlife Center of Virginia, said the most common method for euthanasia for a fawn is through lethal injection of a “scheduled drug that has to be delivered by a [licensed] veterinarian.”

“There are physical methods of euthanizing deer fawn, as well,” McRuer added. “Mostly it’s a gunshot to the head.”

With lethal injection, McRuer explained, “First, we would mask the animal down with a gas anesthesia so that they are completely unconscious, then we would inject them with the lethal drug.”

All in all, McRuer said the veterinary staff at the Wildlife Center can euthanize an animal “easily and humanely” in “under 3 minutes.”

Even without the chronic wasting management, Lafon and Burwell both noted the fawns can be euthanized in cases where an injury would make reintroduction impossible. Lafon said that part is typically up to the licensed vet handling the case.

Furr indicated that while she believes the euthanasia of fawns is unfortunate and that she would not carry out the task herself, she understands the department’s rationale for the policy.

“It is in the best interest of Virginia’s whitetail population and fawn rehabbers in all four counties,” Furr stated in a follow-up text message.

McRuer said that, while the Wildlife Center of Virginia does agree with the implementation of containment area, it has opposed the restriction of fawn rehab.

“I think the answer is to allow fawns to be rehabilitated within the disease management zone, but they must be released within [that zone],” McRuer said.

McRuer added that if “there is not a permanent outlet for the public” to take fawns for rehab, “then the public is going to take matters into their own hands, and then we’re going to see even more issues.”

To McRuer, this would result in a “bigger problem” of habituated deer being raised by members of the public that are unlicensed and “unqualified to treat animals.”

“We get multiple cases every year [of animals] that have been … raised by humans before we acquire them,” McRuer said. “They are fully habituated at that point and there’s not a whole lot we can do … we always have to put them down.”

“Chronic wasting disease is in Virginia, and it is likely to spread, and so it’s going to become the new normal,” McRuer said.

With the spread of chronic wasting seemingly inevitable, McRuer said, “The question is going to be: Is fawn rehabilitation going to be shut down completely across the state?”

Lafon expressed that the hope, from the department’s standpoint, is that they will not have to extend its containment zone anytime soon.

However, Lafon also stated, “Anything we can do, even if it seems a little extreme, to stop this disease from spreading is actually a pretty humane approach to deer.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com