On Your Side: Are deer harvested in Alabama safe to eat?

Deer lock antlers during hunting season in Alabama.
Deer lock antlers during hunting season in Alabama.(WBRC)
Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 10:11 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2021 at 11:05 AM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Deer season is underway in Alabama. As hunters head to the woods, we investigate whether the deer you harvest are healthy and safe to eat.

There are nearly 200,000 licensed deer hunters in Alabama, nearly the same number of deer are harvested annually.

One of the nation’s leading deer researchers, Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff says hunters are the state’s best asset to manage the deer population and monitor diseases.

“I think what hunters need to know is the Chronic Wasting Disease is a real and imminent concern,” Ditchkoff explained. “Twenty years ago we first detected it east of the Mississippi and we’ve been detecting it closer and closer to Alabama.”

Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, is a neurodegenerative disorder that impacts deer. According to Ditchkoff, multiple cases have been detected in Tennessee and Mississippi, some 50 miles from the state border.

“We believe at this point it’s not a matter of if we get Chronic Wasting Disease detected in Alabama, it’s more a matter of when,” Ditchkoff acknowledged.

CWD is lethal, deer don’t show physical signs of the disease until the final stages. Researchers say they still have a lot to learn.

“There are big question marks in terms of what it means from a hunting perspective,” he added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there’s no confirmed cases of CWD infection in humans. In areas where the CWD exists or potentially exists, it’s important for hunters to have their deer tested. Deer with confirmed cases of CWD should not be consumed.

When a case is confirmed in Alabama, Ditchkoff said the state has an action plan. It’s similar to Illinois’ approach, which keeps disease prevalence below five percent.

He stresses, the possibility of CWD shouldn’t serve as a deterrent for hunters.

“Ultimately the tool is the deer hunter, if deer hunters start to say, ‘You know, I really don’t want to participate or I don’t want to go shoot deer that have Chronic Wasting Disease because I’m hunting for meat,’ then you lose your ability to manage because the deer hunter is the management tool,”, he explained.

Ditchkoff says the best way hunters can help the state monitor for CWD is to engage in testing. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has drop off sites for hunters to leave a sample for testing. Its website walks hunters through this process. This not only helps the state, but also provides hunters peace of mind who want to consume the venison they harvest.

Deer hunting season in Alabama
Deer hunting season in Alabama(Jennifer Horton)
Deer hunting season in Alabama
Deer hunting season in Alabama(Jennifer Horton)

“If we detect it really early, then we may be able to get rid of it,” he reported. “So that’s really the game plan right now.”

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has doubled its CWD testing during the last three seasons. 2,147 deer were tested during the 2020-2021 season. Around 50 have been tested since October 2021. Hunters account for 80 percent of the samples. The remaining samples are collected from road-killed deer and sick or symptomatic deer throughout the year.

The state also fights CWD by banning hunters from bringing deer across state lines under specific circumstances.

Alabama has every reason to protect this sport. Whitetail deer are a 35 billion dollar business in North America. A decline in deer hunting would be a sizeable setback to conservation efforts.

“If it was a Fortune 500 Company that would put it right between Nike and Coca Cola,” Ditchkoff explained. “The money that’s generated through license sales and sale of firearms and excise tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment is the money that goes towards conservation of other species.”

COVID is also the topic of research heading into this deer season.

The data coming out that show whitetail deer have the ability to carry [COVID] in fairly high prevalence rates; far greater than I think what anybody would have anticipated, particularly in our wild deer populations,” Ditchkoff stated.

Ditchkoff says the CDC’s concerned about different mutations developing among the deer population. At this point, it’s not something that would sway him from engaging in this sport.

“I’m not concerned as a deer hunter,” he answered. “Number one, I’ve been vaccinated. I think I can protect myself that way. Number two, I’m not concerned going to the woods, I think I have greater risk [of transmitting COVID] by going to the grocery store.”

The state asks anyone who sees a sick deer to promptly report it online.

Deer hunting season in Alabama
Deer hunting season in Alabama(Jennifer Horton)

Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff directs the Deer Laboratory at Auburn University, you can read more about its efforts and his published research here.

Contact the WBRC FOX6 News On Your Side Investigation Team

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