Deer killer: Chronic wasting disease is spreading; case confirmed in Pa.

What many considered inevitable has happened – chronic wasting disease, a serious killer of deer, has been discovered in Pennsylvania. According to a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture news release, CWD was confirmed on Thursday in a tissue sample taken from a penned doe that died in Adams County.

Beginning with its initial discovery in 1967 in a captive mule deer in Colorado, CWD has now spread to 21 states and two Canadian provinces.

At first, this was a disease far-removed the Keystone State. However, in 2005, CWD was discovered in five captive deer and two wild deer near Verona, N.Y., just east of Syracuse — less than 100 miles from Pennsylvania. That same year, CWD was detected in a road-killed deer near Slanesville, W.Va.

Since 2005, 108 cases of CWD have been confirmed in West Virginia. The disease has spread south to neighboring counties in Virginia and north into Maryland. In 2011, it was discovered in Allegany County, Md., directly north of Slanesville, W.Va., and just south of the Pennsylvania state line.

New York has been more fortunate. The state immediately set up a containment area in the surrounding region and tested approximately 30,000 deer between 2005 and 2010. Since no additional cases of CWD were discovered, they lifted the “containment zone” designation in July of 2010.

Chronic wasting disease is a prion-caused neurological condition that is always fatal to cervids — elk, deer and moose. CWD is believed to be transmitted by direct animal-to-animal contact through saliva, feces and urine. The disease attacks the brain and spinal cord of the deer, similar to “Mad Cow Disease” in cattle. It is also similar to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans, although CWD is not known to be transmissible to people.

According to the state department of agriculture, signs of the disease include weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, and abnormal behavior like stumbling, trembling and depression. Infected deer and elk may also allow unusually close approach by humans or natural predators. The disease is fatal and there is no known treatment or vaccine.

The positive sample was taken from a white-tailed deer owned by Ron Rutters — one of 10 deer that he had penned at his property in New Oxford. The deer died in September, and its brain tissue was tested as part of Pennsylvania’s intensive CWD monitoring efforts. The sample was tested at the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg and verified at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

According to Agriculture Department Press Secretary Samantha Elliott Krepps, the diseased doe originated on a deer farm near Williamsport and was transported to a facility in Dover, York County, before arriving at Rutters’ property.

In addition to the Adams County location, the department has quarantined the other two farms that were directly associated with the positive-testing deer. The quarantine prevents movement of animals on and off the premises.

“The quarantine at the three properties will last for some time, but there has been no specific time set by our department,” Krepps said in a phone interview Friday. “We are working with the USDA and other chronic wasting disease experts before finalizing our plan.”

According to wildlife biologist and Quality Deer Management Association Director of Education and Outreach Kip Adams, once CWD is present at a facility, there is no easy way to decontaminate the site.

“In other states, they have scrubbed and disinfected and even scraped up the top six inches of soil, but when they reintroduced deer into the facility, the disease has always shown up again,” Adams said.

Since 2003, supervision of farmed deer has been under the jurisdiction of the PA Department of Agriculture, while wild deer are under the control of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Of course, that has not stopped the PGC from springing into action.

“We had a big meeting at our Harrisburg headquarters today. Attending were Executive Director Carl Roe, lead deer biologist Chris Rosenberry, the commission’s veterinarian Dr. Walter Cottrell, and many others, including the director, conservation officers and land managers from the southcentral region,” noted PGC Press Secretary Jerry Feaser. “The room was packed.”

Among other things, the agency will most likely determine the size of a containment area around each of the three facilities in, with increased or possibly mandatory testing for CWD.

“While the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a captive herd is disturbing news, the CWD Task Force is well prepared to handle the issue. This interagency group has done considerable work in preparing for just such a situation,” commission president Ralph Martone said. “I am confident that their response will provide the best possible outcome for both the deer farmers and the sportsmen of Pennsylvania.”

The task force will carry out the response plan, which includes education and outreach with public meetings, and minimizing risk factors through continued surveillance, testing and management.

Surveillance for CWD has been ongoing in Pennsylvania since 1998. The agriculture department coordinates a mandatory CWD monitoring program for more than 23,000 captive deer on 1,100 breeding farms, hobby farms and shooting preserves. In addition, the Game Commission collects samples from hunter-harvested deer and elk, as well as those that appear sick or behave abnormally. According to the commission, they have tested more than 38,000 wild deer and elk for CWD, and all have tested negative.

“I noticed that out of the now 23 states that have identified CWD, 13 of those have identified it exclusively in captive animals,” noted Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania president Randy Santucci. “That is a very high percentage considering the amount of animals in the wild.”

Adams made the same observation: “It isn’t an accident that this disease is very often associated with captive deer. So CWD showing up in Pennsylvania is no surprise, because the state has more deer farms than any other state except Texas.”

QDMA opposes the loosening of regulations controlling captive deer. Adams thinks that Pennsylvania’s containment plan is a good one and he hopes that CWD is not spread to the wild deer population.

“To date, CWD has not been found in Pennsylvania’s wild deer population,” said Roe. “Concerns over CWD should not prevent anyone from enjoying deer hunting and consuming meat from healthy animals.”

“However, while I am hopeful that this disease can be contained and remain behind fences,” Martone added, “at this point my biggest concern is whether the facilities under quarantine produce deer lures, such as urine-based products. That information alone will determine whether this remains a localized problem or becomes a statewide issue.”

The answer to Martone’s question is not yet known, but it is an important question.

“We don’t know yet if any urine was taken from deer at these farms to be used for scents or lures,” Krepps said.

According to QDMA Adams, the use of urine from captive deer to make deer lures could prove to be a considerable problem because it is a known fact that prions can be spread through urine.

“As far as I know, Vermont is the only state so far that talks against or publically shows concern about urine-based deer lures and scents, but the attractants are still legal there,” Adams said.

The CWD announcement from the agriculture department comes during the middle of Pennsylvania’s six-week archery season. Roe said hunters should shoot only healthy-appearing animals, and take precautions like wearing rubber gloves when field-dressing their deer and wash thoroughly when finished.

Acting Health Secretary Michael Wolf said, “Though no human disease has been associated with CWD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people or other animals do not eat any part of an animal diagnosed with or showing signs of CWD.”