Bovine TB Potentially Affects all Hoosiers

When hunters in Dearborn, Franklin and Fayette Counties take the field tomorrow morning for the opening day of the deer firearms season, they will face an additional challenge: Bovine TB.

Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is a chronic bacterial disease that primarily affects cattle but can be transmitted to any warm-blooded animal such as raccoon or whitetail deer. Like some other deer diseases, it is difficult to detect until the animal is on the verge of death and it can also be transmitted to humans, though such cases are rare.

The discovery of bovine TB in Indiana’s deer herd has major implications for Hoosier hunters and farmers, even beyond the area in southeastern Indiana. While the disease can cause deer and cattle deaths, the bigger problem is if the state loses its “Bovine TB free”-status. If that happens, cattle and dairy producers could suffer tremendous monetary losses as the market for their products becomes sharply reduced. This in turn can lead to higher consumer prices for beef and dairy products. This is why even non-hunters have a vested interest in eradicating bovine TB.

WildIndiana talked to Indiana Department of Natural Resouces Deer Biologist Joe Caudell about the problem. We met him at the USDA Animal Services mobile autopsy lab near Batesville where he performs dissections on deer heads to obtain samples for testing. We asked him to explain why this relatively-unknown disease is potentially such a big problem. “It not only affects the deer population,” he said, “but our ability to freely trade cattle within and outside the state and it can also affect humans,” he noted while gloving up for a procedure.

The disease has been simmering along in Indiana since 2008 when a single cow from Franklin County was found to be infected. Then in 2009, captive deer and elk at a nearby farm tested positive and all were destroyed. In 2011 there was another case at a nearby cattle farm in Dearborn County. The bacteria in all the cases have been identified as coming from the same source.

In all these instances, wild deer near the farms were sampled and none were found to test positive.

Wild, free-ranging deer are important to biologists because they are one of the best carriers for the dispersing the disease-causing bacteria across a region. As deer typically feed alongside cattle, a whitetail could be infected through direct contact and then easily spread the disease into the area deer herd, which would spread it to other cattle farms, jump-starting an epidemic.

That scenario took one step closer to reality this year when a farm in Franklin County tested positive for bovine TB in April. In August, several deer around the farm were killed and tested; one doe tested positive, making it the first time bovine TB had been seen in Indiana’s wild deer herd.

According to Caudell, a single deer is representative of a larger problem. “Based on the statistics of what we’re doing, if we were to find it (bovine TB) in a single deer, that might mean it’s in maybe 20 other deer,” the biologist said.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Indiana State Board of Animal Health (BOAH) and the USDA are working together to determine if bovine TB has become widespread in the deer herd and to eradicate it before it becomes a major problem. This has important implications for hunters in the area.

That is why the DNR has established a Bovine TB Management Zone and a Bovine TB Surveillance Zone with different goals in each.

In the Management Zone, the overall goal is to reduce the total number of whitetail deer in order to prevent the further spread of the disease. There will also be voluntary sampling of harvested deer. “Our goal,” Caudell said, “is to eradicate bovine TB from the deer population so we don’t have to deal with it for the next 10, 20 or 30 years- or forever.”

When asked if the deer population will be reduced to stop the spread of bovine TB, Caudell is forthright: “Yeah, absolutely; that is the only way a state has successfully managed this disease.” He explains that the state of Minnesota immediately took aggressive action when the disease was found there several years ago and quickly eradicated bovine TB. Michigan, on the other hand, didn't take the problem as seriously and it continues to crop up. “They will probably be dealing with bovine TB forever,” Caudell said of our northern neighbor.

There are two ways the deer reduction will be accomplished. To encourage participation in the testing program and increase the buck harvest, any hunter who checks a 2-year or older buck from the affected area into the testing program will receive an extra buck tag.

After the season, if deer harvest goals aren’t met, sharpshooters will be used to thin the population in the management zone. The DNR would prefer that hunters reduce the herd during deer season rather than giving additional work to the contract shooters. Fortunately, there is a program in place to provide the culled deer to food banks after testing to help feed the needy but the DNR strongly wants to see hunters utilize the resource.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that the deer herd in areas of Fayette and Franklin Counties will take a hit for the next few years. The best case scenario is that no further deer test positive, then no further actions would be required. If several deer test positive, it could mean even more drastic measures in the future.

Fortunately, most landowners and hunters in the area have been supportive. They realize that further spread of the disease could be devastating, not only to the deer herd but Indiana farmers and consumers as well. The BOAH and DNR have also undertaken a major public education program to make sure everyone understands the problem and the remedies being taken.

While the management zone represents the most drastic part of the program, the purpose of the surveillance Zone in Dearborn County is to determine if bovine TB is present in the wild herd in that area. That is the reason for the mandatory sampling of harvested deer; hunters are the key to the effort.

“We need to test about 80% of the mature bucks harvested to reach our sample goals,” Caudell noted. If the goals aren’t reached, sharpshooters will be used to take more deer. “(if the goals aren't reached) we’ll have to come back in after the season and use sharpshooters to take animals for surveillance, which we don’t want to do. We know there are plenty of deer harvested, it just a matter of whether folks will help out and bring us their deer,” he said.

The process:

Biological check stations and drop-off locations are available throughout the area. Click here for a listing.

At the biological check stations, biologists will take small samples of lymph nodes from the head and neck region of the deer. Hunters are asked to avoid cutting into these areas during field dressing to avoid destroying the samples. After sampling, the deer will be released to the hunter. The DNR has gone to great lengths to make the process as simple and easy as possible while still getting good samples.

In the surveillance zone, any successful deer hunter during November 4-27 is required to check their deer online within 12 hours (unlike the normal 48 hours in other areas) of harvest and then take it to a Biological Check Station within that same time frame.

Additionally, there is a collection team available in Dearborn County that can meet with hunters to sample the deer. If you take the deer to a taxidermist or processor in the area, you can provide the name of the business to the DNR and the team will make arrangements to sample the deer without your presence being required. For hunters in the management zone, there is also a list of approved locations where you can drop off just the head of your deer.

There will be additional voluntary surveillance checks in Dearborn County on Dec 3 through 11

In the end...

No one is happy about the extra time, trouble and expense this problem is causing and area deer hunters are certainly going to pay a price for the next few years. However, like the proverbial bitter-tasting medicine, the whole thing may be tough to swallow but will hopefully solve the problem in the long run and bring Indiana’s deer and cattle herds back to full health.


DNR Tuberculosis Surveillance and Management page

Indiana State Department of Health Bovine TB quick facts

BOAH Bovine Tuberculosis Facts