A doe and a younger deer

A study out of Penn State found more than 80 percent of white-tailed deer sampled in Iowa last winter tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Less than two months ago, the heading for this column was “Is another deer disease headed our way?” It highlighted the fact that not only was Chronic Wasting Disease affecting the deer population, but another disease, the fatal Epizootic Hemorrhage Disease (EHD) was moving our way, too. Now, deer in Iowa have been infected with COVID-19, according to a recent study conducted by university researchers. They found the results so disturbing that they are alerting deer hunters and others who handle deer to take precautions to avoid transmission.

Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service collected 481 samples from deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania between January 2020 and March 2021. They found SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in 33 percent of those samples.

Similarly, a study out of Pennsylvania State University found more than 80 percent of the white-tailed deer sampled in different parts of Iowa between December 2020 and January 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

This was the first direct evidence of COVID-19 in any free-living species, said Suresh Kuchipudi, clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences and associate director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at Penn State. So, from where are they getting it? The Inspection Service said it is possible deer were exposed through people, the environment, other deer or another animal species.

The findings have implications for the ecology and long-term persistence of COVID-19, said Kuchipudi, chair in emerging infectious diseases at the university.

“These include spillover to other free-living or captive animals and potential spillback to human hosts,” Kuchipudi said. “Of course, this highlights that many urgent steps are needed to monitor the spread of the virus in deer and prevent spillback to humans.”

According to the MassWildlife website, MA DFW has already been and continues to monitor the situation of deer and COVID, per Martin Feehan, the Deer and Moose Project Leader.

“Although there is no direct evidence of COVID-19 in deer in Massachusetts, published studies and unpublished surveillance throughout North America have found the presence of COVID-19 in white-tailed deer,” said Feehan. “The prevalence rates have varied regionally, but there haven’t been cases of populations appearing entirely negative [in cases] in 2020 and 2021, This would suggest that COVID-19 is already present in deer populations in Massachusetts. There is no evidence currently that COVID-19 adversely impacts white-tailed deer and no mortalities have been reported.”

According to the DFW website, experts are still learning about this virus and currently there is no evidence that wildlife might be a source of infection for people in the United States, and there is no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating food, including hunted wild game meat. As a novel emerging disease, research is ongoing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and its impacts on wildlife. New studies are showing that wild deer have contracted multiple strains of COVID-19 from humans, and Ohio State University recently found active infection in wild Ohio deer using PCR tests. Experimental research with captive deer has shown that SARS-CoV-2 can spread among deer, however, deer are only contagious for a short duration (less than seven days).

MassWildlife feels that the risk for transmission from deer to humans is likely very low due to the outdoor aspect of hunting and the short period of time deer are contagious with the virus. SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted by inhaling aerosolized droplets. These droplets can come from respiration or from the digestive tract. Currently:

The transmission mode from humans to white-tailed deer is unknown.

There have been no known cases of humans contracting COVID-19 from deer.

There is no evidence people can contract COVID-19 by eating wild game.

To minimize the transmission risk of diseases, MassWildlife always recommends hunters:

Avoid handling or consuming wild animals that appear sick or those found dead.

Wear gloves and a face shield when handling, field dressing and processing game.

When possible, process your game outdoors or in a well-ventilated location.

Use caution and minimize contact with the brain or spinal tissues.

Out of an abundance of caution for COVID-19, additional preventative measures include avoiding the head, lungs and digestive tract. Handle knives carefully to prevent accidental cuts.

Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling carcasses and before and after handling meat.

Thoroughly sanitize all tools and work surfaces used during processing with a bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon water). Consider keeping a separate set of knives used only for butchering game.

Cook game meat thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to kill pathogens.

MassWildlife Habitat Management Grant Program (MHMGP)

The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game has awarded $184,400 in state grant funds to eight organizations and municipalities to improve wildlife habitat on 276 acres of land across the state.

For the past seven years, the program has provided financial assistance to private and municipal landowners of conserved lands to improve and manage habitat for wildlife deemed in greatest conservation need and for certain game species.

While the state and conservation organizations have purchased land in an effort to provide protection to wildlife and ecology, more habitat restoration and management is needed on public and private lands across the state. As a result, the Baker-Polito Administration has increased investment by committing to working with partners to promote these efforts on other conserved lands across the state. The MHMGP program encourages landowners to engage in active habitat management on their properties to benefit wildlife.

“Most forests and other wildlife habitats in Massachusetts are not state-owned, and we rely on conservation organizations, cities and towns, private landowners, and other partners to help us manage habitat to benefit all wildlife,” said DFG commissioner Ron Amidon. “This program provides us with the opportunity to expand our habitat management footprint, directly benefiting wildlife, sportsmen and women, and other people who enjoy outdoor recreation.”

Of the eight projects, three Berkshire County communities; Lenox, Sheffield and South Lee will be receiving a combined $60,000 for projects. They are as follows:

Lenox — The Town of Lenox, in conjunction with the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, has been awarded $26,810 to control the hardy kiwi vine at Kennedy Park and adjacent properties.

Sheffield — The Sheffield Land Trust will receive $16,040 to conduct brush hogging and invasive species control at Ashley Falls Woods.

South Lee — South Lee Associates, in conjunction with the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, will receive $17,400 to control invasive species and improve floodplain forest habitats on multiple Housatonic River properties.

“The funds from the MassWildlife Habitat Management Grant will be instrumental for both Kennedy Park and areas along the Housatonic River,” said State Representative Smitty Pignatelli. “The Berkshires are known for our natural landscapes, and the improvements made possible by this grant will allow our residents to continue to access and enjoy these beautiful natural landscapes for generations to come.”

Improved MassFishHunt coming soon

The MassFishHunt official licensing and harvest reporting system for Massachusetts is getting an upgrade. The new system will be live starting Dec. 1, 2021. As always, anglers, hunters and trappers will be able to buy licenses and permits, report a harvest, and access account information. MassFishHunt’s new secure, modern platform offers new features designed with the customer in mind.

So, what’s changing?

Setting up your account in the new MassFishHunt is simple. With just a few clicks, you’ll have access to new features, including:

Upgraded log-in with email and password to keep your account secure

Linked accounts for families

Auto-renew option lets you set it and forget it to keep your licenses up-to-date

Buy-it-again option saves your favorite products for quick checkout

Improved mobile experience

Registration for outdoor skills classes

As they approach launch day on Dec. 1, they will be adding tutorials and updates to make this transition as seamless as possible for all customers on Mass.gov/NewMassFishHunt.

Once the new system launches, additional customer support resources will be provided.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Gene Chague can be reached at berkwoodsandwaters@gmail.com or 413-637-1818.

Gene Chague is a longtime sportsman and editor of The Eagle's Berkshire Woods and Waters outdoors column.