FRONT ROYAL -- A federal and a state agency will be studying the deer populations in Frederick and Rappahannock counties this fall and winter in an effort to contain the spread of a deadly brain disease.
The effort involving the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is scheduled to begin today.The agencies are launching the study to learn more about how to contain the spread of chronic wasting disease. Ben Martini, an ecology intern at the Smithsonian Institute's Front Royal site, described chronic wasting disease as "very similar to mad cow disease."
"It basically turns their brain to mush," Martini said.
Studies have found no evidence so far that the disease spreads to humans or other animals, although not much is known about it, Martini said.
The state has confirmed two cases of chronic wasting disease in Virginia, the first in 2009 in a female deer killed by a hunter on private property in Frederick County.
The second case was discovered in a male deer killed by a hunter during the 2010 hunting season. The second death was recorded less than two miles away from the first, and both were within a few miles of an area in West Virginia where the disease has been found annually since 2005, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' website. The disease has been found in 17 other states spanning an area from Utah and Wyoming to Maryland.
"The disease spreads through deer-to-deer contact and persists in the environment a while," Martini said.
As a result, Martini said, the state is hoping that efforts to limit the deer population will also reduce the chances of chronic wasting disease spreading throughout the state's deer herd.
The study will attempt to compare deer populations in Rappahannock County and a portion of Frederick County west of Interstate 81, Martini said.
The project will involve estimating the size of deer herds before and after hunting seasons, an effort scheduled to begin today.
Estimating the deer population will require the spotlighting of deer at night. Martini said government employees will remain on public roads and stay off private property while spotlighting. Landowners will be contacted for permission to conduct spotlighting of deer on their property, and police will be notified when spotlighting is planned, he said.
"We're using spotlighting to see the deer in the fields because they're easier to spot at night," Martini said. "We're using it as a counting technique to estimate population density."
The study also involves surveying landowners to gauge how well-informed the public is about chronic wasting disease and participation in the hunting season.
Anyone interested in completing the survey or with questions about survey activities should call Martini at 635-0036.