BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — What Professor Luis Escobar does in his office and labs at Virginia Tech has a lot to do with the health of deer in the forests of Virginia. Escobar is one of the leading experts in the country on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). He is at the forefront of a research effort to stop or slow the spread of the condition that threatens deer populations around the world.
“This is an epidemic,” said Escobar as he went over research material at his desk in Blacksburg. “This is still spreading. We are discovering Chronic Wasting Disease in new populations, new areas.”
Because there is no cure or vaccine, containment is vital. Escobar says the key is figuring out the way the disease is spread geographically. He says predictions can be made, and that once a likely pathway is identified, action can be taken to block it. Fortunately, Virginia is still early in the epidemic.
“Virginia is just starting, we have infections in areas in the north of Virginia and on the border with West Virginia,” Escobar said. “It’s not widespread across the state, and that’s a big opportunity for us to act, now.”
Just as important as containment is herd management, and that means hunters play a role. Deer population density leads to higher rates of transmission. Thinning the herd to healthy levels lessens the spread.
“We need hunters to hunt,” said Escobar. “We are playing the role of predators, reducing the density of populations, recovering animals, and that keeps the herds healthy.”
Roger Lyons of Montgomery County is an avid deer hunter. He says identifying deer with CWD and then reporting them will help to contain the disease.
“Whenever you see anything suspicious, it never hurts to at least contact your DWR (Department of Wildlife Resources),” Lyons said. “Find out if they want to investigate.”
It will be mandatory for deer harvested in CWD Management Areas in Virginia on certain days during deer season to be tested. Pulaski, Floyd, Patrick, Carroll, and Montgomery Counties make up CWD Management Area 3. All deer harvested on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, must be tested. Testing locations are located at various locations in the affected counties.
Hunters can also have deer tested voluntarily outside of the management areas.
While hunters do their part to slow the spread, Escobar will continue to do the research to stop it: “If we understand how Chronic Wasting Disease is transmitted from one animal to another, from one herd to another, then with those lessons we can try to block the transmission.”