A recent gift to Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment will help jump-start research aimed at understanding how chronic wasting disease (CWD) is impacting the health of white-tailed deer in Virginia.

The $30,000 gift, which will help fund graduate research in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, reflects the grassroots fundraising efforts of Virginia Hound Heritage. The nonprofit organization active in Southampton, Sussex, and other surrounding counties has a strong record of giving and support, from helping to feed people in the community to providing booster funds for local police and fire departments.

“This research is a perfect fit for our group,” said spokesman William Hart Gillette ’71, who worked with the group’s board of directors to secure funding. “White-tailed deer are the No. 1 animal for hunters, and it is a practice that generates a lot of revenue in the state. We felt like we had a vested interest in helping to tackle the problem.”

Assistant Professor Luis Escobar, a specialist in wildlife health, said understanding the dynamics of disease transmission is critical to finding a solution.

“Studies suggest that CWD poses a large potential threat to wildlife conservation due to deer mortality and the effects on genetic diversity in affected populations,” said Escobar. “The disease has been detected in free-ranging deer species in 29 U.S. states, including the northern and southwestern parts of Virginia.”

To understand the dynamics of how the disease spreads, Escobar will lead a study with Assistant Professor Brett Jesmer, an expert on deer ecology and animal movement. The group will use molecular tools to understand disease transmission in the state.

“With the help of this gift, we will undertake an extensive investigation into CWD transmission risks across Virginia. The goal is to estimate the paths, directions, and extent of future disease spread,” said Escobar.

A group of people stand around a large bank check.
Assistant Dean of Advancement Andrew Ickes (at far left) and Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Professor and department chair Joel Snodgrass (holding check at left) stand with William Hart Gillette '79 (fourth from left, standing), Virginia Dels. Emily Brewer (fifth from left, standing) and Otto Wachsmann (at far right), and members of Virginia Hound Heritage. Photo courtesy of Virginia Hound Heritage.

For Gillette, the opportunity to contribute to research that may have local and national impacts is particularly important.

“One of the goals of all of the outreach our organization does is to increase civic engagement,” said Gillette, who has worked with Virginia Hound Heritage since its founding in 2016. “This research will directly help people where we live, but it also goes beyond the boundaries of our county and community. With this gift, we are contributing to research that impacts everyone.”

Professor Joel Snodgrass, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, said management and research have played a critical role in protecting white-tailed deer populations. 

“White-tailed deer populations faced threats from over-hunting in the past but recovered during the 20th century in North America due to management by state and federal agencies,” said Snodgrass, who met with representatives of the Virginia Hound Heritage group in early April. “Now diseases such as CWD may threaten white-tailed deer population, livestock, and even human health. These types of gifts provide the support to help us understand these threats and contribute to the successful management of white-tailed deer in Virginia.”

Andrew Ickes, assistant dean of advancement for the college, believes gifts like these are important to helping Virginia Tech honor its land-grant commitment to the commonwealth.

“Science and recreation intersect in a number of different ways,” said Ickes, who joined Snodgrass in meeting with the group. “This gift demonstrates how the research that is happening in the college has a real impact on people throughout the commonwealth, the nation, and the world. We hope that others will be inspired by this grassroots effort.”

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