Florida state officials give update on chronic wasting disease after Holmes County deer case

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services held a public meeting at Bonifay K-8 School on Thursday, April 11, to provide an update to Holmes County community members on the status of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the local deer population. 

Holmes and Washington counties continue to be the epicenter for CWD, a fatal condition affecting the brain and central nervous system of deer.

The first known case of CWD in Florida was detected in Holmes County in June 2023, after a 4.5-year-old female deer tested positive during routine surveillance. 

Since then, FWC has implemented a CWD management zone covering parts of Holmes, Washington, and Jackson counties, with specific regulations to manage the disease, including a ban on feeding deer–also known as “baiting.”

Cory Morea, FWC’s deer management coordinator, informed attendees that there have been no new confirmed cases since 2023, attributing this to early detection efforts. Over 1300 samples have been tested, all of which were negative, with the majority submitted by local hunters. 

However, only 9% of harvested deer in Holmes County were submitted for testing, raising concerns about the low participation rate.

“We are told to bring our harvested deer over 30 miles to testing stations. I am not submitting myself to that. They need to do their job and get out here,” one hunter who declined to be identified.

Another hunter who also did not want to give his name said they “have had laws and regulations placed on us for years and now they expect us to just bring them our deer as if trust has been built.”

“We have work to do,” the second hunter said.

In response, FWC announced several changes for the 2024 season, including allowing baiting during hunting seasons, eliminating baiting permit fees, and expanding antlerless deer harvesting opportunities in the DMU-D2 zone. 

Antlerless deer in the DMU-D2 zone will be available for harvesting during the entire season, ultimately eliminating the past “Doe Days,” with an increase in antlerless deer bag limits from 2 to 3 annually.

Despite these changes, many locals feel more needs to be done to address the overpopulation of deer in the area. During the meeting’s Q&A session, residents proposed ideas to improve collaboration between hunters and FWC, such as an incentive-based trust program suggested by Florida House of Representatives Representative Shane Abbott. 

“I suggest you offer local hunters the opportunity to turn in 3 antlerless deer for sampling and they can get a 4th tag as a reward,” Abbott said. “This incentive will assist the FWC in researching CWD, and it will also help to further develop a trusted relationship between the hunters and researchers over time.”

Kalyn Waters, county extension director for the University of Florida, said it is important to recognize that local hunters are the frontline of conservation, “so working together with FWC is imperative.” 

She highlighted ongoing efforts like the Conservation for Generations program.

FWC representatives expressed openness to exploring new ideas and working closely with the community to address the challenges posed by CWD and deer overpopulation in the region.

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