LOGAN — White-tailed deer hunting season is one of the busiest and most celebrated times of year in southeast Ohio. Statewide, gun season began yesterday, Monday, Nov. 29 and ends next Sunday, Dec. 5.
Hocking County is a two-deer harvest county, Lindsay Rist, ODNR wildlife communications specialist, said; by comparison, next-door Athens County is a three-deer county. Six is the statewide harvest limit, she added.
According to the ODNR, hunting is permitted on Hocking State Forest property; however, it is not permitted on the nature preserves or Hocking Hills State Park and shooting is prohibited within 400 feet of any building, facility, or recreation area and from or across any roadway.
Similarly, hunting is permitted on Wayne National Forest property; however, it is not permitted within 150 yards of a building, campsite or recreation area, and discharging a firearm is not permitted “from, into, or across any parking area, trail, boat ramp or forest road;” across a body of water and into or within a cave.
However, this year may look a little different for hunters — strangely enough, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Ohio State University Associate Professor Andy Bowman told The Logan Daily News that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been found in deer in northeast Ohio.
Bowman was a senior author on a study that discovered the infected Ohio deer. The news of white-tailed deer with COVID, published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in August, has sparked recent questions and inconclusive headlines.
Earlier this month, NPR reported that SARS-CoV-2 in deer “could alter the course of the global pandemic,” following a Pennsylvania State University study that found active infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020, which suggests that white-tailed deer could become “reservoirs” for the virus, meaning that they can carry it indefinitely and periodically spread it in humans. One week later, cleveland.com reported that hunters should take extra precautions this season due to the presence of the virus in deer.
“With reports in Ohio and Iowa, it would appear as though it’s not just a localized phenomenon to northeast Ohio or Iowa,” Bowman said. “It’s probably happening elsewhere.”
Deer don’t recognize county boundaries, Rist noted. However, deer that are infected have shown no “clinical” signs of the virus, Bowman said. “And that goes for the experimentally infected ones as well.”
According to outdoor outfitter Mossy Oak, yearling bucks leave the area where they were born to a “home range” of about 600–1,000 acres; however, they adapt their range to their survival needs and rut, Rist said.
However, Bowman said, the infected deer, though asymptomatic, were able to transmit the virus deer-to-deer. It appears as though COVID in deer is an upper respiratory infection, like in people, he explained.
“In the experimental infection studies, the virus was very localized to the upper respiratory — nasal passages and upper respiratory tract,” Bowman said. “It would appear that transmissions (are) likely occurring through that route.”
Deer-to-human transmission is currently unknown, Bowman said, however, he stressed that caution should be exercised. “I think you have to treat it as though there is some risk there,” Bowman said. “What that risk is, we don’t know.”
Bowman said that there have been a variety of studies that have come out within the past few months that seem to show that deer are susceptible hosts to SARS-Cov-2. It is unknown how deer are being infected with the virus, he said.
“There’s a rolling speculation that pretty much everybody’s got different ideas on,” Bowman said. “It’s unclear whether it’s directly from humans, whether it’s some sort of contamination of the environment by humans, whether it’s humans infecting another animal species that are then infecting the deer. It’s really unclear.”
It’s also unclear as to what COVID in deer populations means for the future of the pandemic. The “really big question,” Bowman said, is what does it mean for long-term virus control.
“We’ve been playing the game essentially as having the virus in one host, humans — this would change that,” Bowman said. “We have to consider that there may be viruses circulating in a wildlife reservoir.”
Bowman mentioned that Wisconsin is the first and only state so far to issue recommendations for hunters to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), like gloves and face masks, as they are field dressing and processing deer.
“The higher risk tissues are going to be the upper respiratory tract,” Bowman said, adding that immunocompromised or those at higher-risk may be those who want to take extra precautions. However, cleveland.com reported that “COVID can involve the gastrointestinal tract,” too.
Hunters are at an increased risk compared to the general public, because the general public generally does not have close contact with deer, Bowman explained. “I think that they just need to use whatever precautions that they see fit for the situation, realizing that those animals may be exposed, may be infected with SARS-Cov-2.”
Samples are being collected every day, Bowman said. Ohio’s samples were collected January through March of this year, and Iowa’s were through the end of 2020. To Bowman, scientists and the public are learning about COVID in deer with a delayed perspective.
“Everybody’s kind of learning about this in a retrospective manner,” Bowman said. “And we’re trying to figure out what’s the landscape today... We’re trying to answer that question of, ‘are there differences by location?’ We’re trying to survey the entire state.”
According to the Hocking County Health Department, as of Nov. 23 the county had 125 active COVID cases, six hospitalizations (not all hospitalizations within the county) and 19 deaths since Aug. 1. As of Nov. 29, according to the Ohio Department of Health the county has seen a preliminary total of 3,996 confirmed COVID cases.
Bowman and Gail Keirn, legislative and public affairs representative from the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center, both recommended that hunters should follow USDA guidelines for preparing wild meat. All game meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, Keirn said in an email; infection should not be a concern as long as the meat is thoroughly cooked, according to cleveland.com
Hunters who find themselves in possession of more meat than they need can donate it to Logan’s own Southeast Ohio Regional Foodbank, 1005 CIC Drive.
According to a public Facebook post by Foodbank Coordinator Phil Melillo, the Southeast Ohio Foodbank by Hocking Athens Perry Community Action (HAPCAP), is set up and funded to accept wild harvested deer this year to Southeast Ohio Foodbank counties, which are Athens, Gallia, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Perry, Vinton and Washington counties.
“We don’t care where the deer come from, but they have to be processed by my processor or by a processor that is Ohio Department of Agriculture certified or certified ‘not for sale,’” Melillo wrote. “I can pay for the processing but you will need to contact me beforehand if you plan on using a processor other than my processor. My processor has a 24-hour access cooler for drop-off.”
Melillo said people are welcome to privately message him for details. His post saw over 500 shares. The Southeast Ohio Foodbank can be reached at (740) 385-6813.
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