Chronic wasting disease found in Fairfax County deer for first time ever

A deer checks out leaves by an asphalt path in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A neurological disease that’s fatal to deer has been detected in Fairfax County for the first time ever.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was found in an adult male deer killed by a hunter in the Vienna area this past October, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reported Friday (Jan. 13).

The department says it confirmed the diagnosis with a sample obtained shortly after the deer was taken to a taxidermist in late October

“At the time of harvest, no outward signs of disease were noted, and the deer appeared to be in good condition,” DWR said in a news release. “Because this is the first CWD-positive detection in Fairfax County, a county bordering Disease Management Area 2 (DMA2), the DWR conducted an extensive forensic investigation to confirm the harvest location of this deer.”

Disease Management Area 2 encompasses Loudoun, Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange, Page, Rappahannock counties, where four instances of the disease — including one in Loudoun County — were detected during the 2021-2022 deer-hunting season.

First detected in Virginia in 2009, CWD is caused by an infectious protein called a prion that get transmitted to deer through saliva, feces, and urine from infected deer as well as through contaminated soil, according to DWR.

It can take months or even over a year after being exposed for infected deer to show symptoms, which include “staggering, abnormal posture, lowered head, drooling, confusion, and marked weight loss,” the department says.

While the disease isn’t known to be infectious or dangerous to humans, pets or livestock, DWR advises all hunters with deer from CWD-positive areas to get them tested and avoid eating meat from animals that test positive.

The department also recommends against transporting deer carcasses or parts with brain or spinal cord tissue from Fairfax County to an area where CWD hasn’t been detected before. Deer parts should be put in double bags and disposed of in a landfill or a trash bin, where they can be collected.

The state says it won’t make any regulatory changes in response to the CWD detection in Fairfax County until after the current hunting season, but drop sites where deer heads can be taken for CWD testing will be added before the next season. Right now, the closest options are in Loudoun.

Though deer-hunting season is mostly over in Virginia, Fairfax County is one of several localities included in the state’s urban archery program, which restricts hunters to deer without antlers and lasts through March 26.

In an effort to manage local deer populations, Fairfax County is allowing hunting with bows and arrows at over 100 parks in its 2022-2023 archery season, which runs through Feb. 18. Testing for CWD has been conducted throughout the county in recent years as part of its deer management program.

“Since the 2019-2020 season, over 750 deer have been tested, with this being the only detection to date in the county,” DWR said.

The Fairfax County Police Department’s wildlife management staff, which has been assisting with CWD surveillance efforts since 2019, will work with DWR to “determine any new rules or regulatory changes that will occur.” It will also help identify testing options for hunters participating in the county archery program or on private property.

This has evidently been a year for new diseases in local nature. Last week, the county announced that beech leaf disease has been found in three parks, putting one of the area’s most common tree species at risk.

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