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Deadly wildlife disease found in deer carcass in SC. Trophy hunters face charges

When a laboratory confirmed that a lethal wildlife disease had been found in South Carolina, the finding sent chills through biologists at the state Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR has tried for years to keep chronic wasting disease out of South Carolina in an effort to prevent it from spreading to native white-tailed deer populations. But those efforts, which rely on educational programs and state restrictions, were not enough to stop several hunters from hauling in parts of a deer that was killed in Kansas, wildlife officials say.

A deer head, imported in 2019 for display as a trophy, contained chronic wasting disease, an ailment likened to “mad cow’’ disease in deer. The discovery was the first — and only — time the disease has been verified in a deer transported into South Carolina, a DNR official said.

Now, three South Carolina men face federal wildlife charges, in this case involving the importation of a deer part from a state where chronic wasting disease has been found in the wild.

Sean Robert Paschall, Chad Caldwell Seymore and Justin Grady LeMaster were in court Tuesday in Columbia. Seymore faces two federal counts of unlawfully transporting wildlife, while Paschall and LeMaster face one count. A U.S. district judge in Columbia set bond Tuesday at $20,000 apiece. If convicted, the men face could face up to five years in prison.

“This particular case demonstrates why we have regulations prohibiting these carcass parts from being imported from states’’ where chronic wasting disease has been found, said Charles Ruth, a state wildlife department official whose agency worked with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Ruth said South Carolina is lucky because wildlife officials found the diseased deer head before the affliction spread into the wild. But the state needs to remain vigilant, he said, noting that there could be cases where diseased deer parts are smuggled into South Carolina.

Chronic wasting disease is an illness that afflicts deer, elk and related species. It has not proven to be fatal to humans, although a recent study in Canada indicated there could be some risk. But the disease can have real impacts over time on deer populations that hunters rely on for harvest.

Infected deer become listless, lose weight and hair, begin to drool and stagger around. Chronic wasting disease is almost always fatal to deer and can spread easily among deer populations. It was discovered in 1967.

According to a federal indictment from earlier this month, the South Carolina hunters broke state big-game and wildlife possession laws in Kansas. Then, in South Carolina, they possessed deer parts from another state where chronic wasting disease has been identified, also a violation of state law, the indictment says.

The interstate movement of deer constituted federal violations. If someone breaks a state law in obtaining fish or wildlife, it is a violation of federal law to transport animal parts to another state.

Authorities seized deer antlers from Paschall’s son and brother, who is now deceased, as well as from Seymore, records show.

The hunters declined comment after their arraignment Tuesday in Columbia. The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not provide the ages and hometowns of the hunters who face charges, other than to say two are from the Upstate and one is from the Columbia area.

Seymore’s lawyer, James Brehm, said his client is a 48-year-old Greenville County resident.

Brehm told The State that the men went hunting in Kansas, lured by the big deer found there, but “just had no idea’’ about South Carolina rules against importing deer from a state where chronic wasting disease has been found. Brehm said the men found it was more expensive to process deer in Kansas than in South Carolina.

Chronic wasting disease has been detected in the wild in about 30 states, including in Kansas and parts of the West. But some eastern states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania, have discovered the affliction in free-ranging deer, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Deer hunting is considered the single-biggest hunting activity in South Carolina, pumping millions of dollars into the economy each year.

The economy could be hurt either by a hesitancy from sportsmen to hunt diseased deer or in actual population declines from the deaths of sick deer. All told, the state’s deer population exceeds 700,000 animals, a 2019 DNR study says. That’s substantially more than other popular game species, including hogs and wild turkeys.

Chronic wasting disease was suspected as a major contributor to a 45 percent decline in deer abundance near Boulder, Colo., from 1988-2006, according to a 2016 study by a team of scientists. In Wisconsin, spending on deer hunting declined, at one point, by at least $48 million, in part because of chronic wasting disease, another study shows.

South Carolina, like other states, has adopted laws against importing certain deer parts that could contain chronic wasting disease, such as the head.

Hunters who kill deer in other parts of the country must have the heads processed in the states where the animals were shot, if those states have had chronic wasting disease outbreaks, according to South Carolina law. They then can bring a mounted deer head back to South Carolina.

In addition to laws, the state also has spent considerable time trying to educate hunters about the dangers of bringing in animal carcasses that could spread disease. But Ruth and federal prosecutors concede the educational effort is not foolproof.

South Carolina’s native white-tailed deer population is fairly robust, although numbers have dropped somewhat in the past two decades. At one point more than 50 years ago, deer were not nearly as common in South Carolina, the result of over harvesting, habitat loss and a lack of laws protecting the animals.

South Carolina’s deer hunting season has opened in parts of the state, with the rest of the state to be open by early October.