The sad and probably inevitable news is here — chronic wasting disease has been discovered in wild white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania. Test results from samples collected last fall by the Pennsylvania Game Commission indicated that this always-fatal disease was present in the brain tissue from three wild deer — two bucks and a doe.
Commission executive director Carl Roe had been known to say, “The disease is already here, we just haven’t found it yet.”
Well, it has been found.
Two of the deer testing positive were shot in Blair County, and the third in Bedford County. All three were harvested during Pennsylvania’s regular rifle deer season last fall. Bedford County is just north of where CWD-infected deer have been discovered during recent years in Maryland and West Virginia. According to PGC spokesman Joe Neville, Bedford and other southern tier counties were on his agency’s list for areas receiving a higher level of CWD testing because of their proximity to Maryland. Blair County was not included on that list, but it is just north of Bedford County and borders on Centre County. This discovery is likely to have a negative impact on the deer population and deer hunting in Centre and surrounding counties.
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The PGC announced the findings on March 1, and held a Harrisburg news conference to provide more details on March 4. At the new conference, the three CWD-positive-testing deer were identified as follows: an adult buck shot in Frankstown Township, Blair County (southeast of Altoona), an adult doe taken in Freedom Township, Blair County (along I-99 near East Freedom), and a 1 1/2-year-old buck shot in South Woodbury Township, Bedford County (near New Enterprise).
In every state where chronic wasting disease exists, it has been first connected to farm-raised deer — those white-tailed deer that are raised in captivity for their venison or, more likely, for so-called “hunts” that occur within a fenced area. Therefore, it is not likely a coincidence that CWD has been discovered in Blair and Bedford counties. These two counties alone have over 110 deer and elk farms registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. This is approximately ten percent of all the deer farms in the state.
Neville brought this fact to my attention and also noted that deer farmers frequently move deer between facilities as a result of sales or trades. Although he did not directly criticize the Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over captive deer, he questioned the lack of accurate record keeping.
“It is just wide open. Records are poor at times, making it difficult to trace where and when a particular deer was at a deer farm,” Neville said.
Rumors abound about deer escaping from one or more of these 100-plus facilities during the past year. Neville confirmed that an unspecified number of deer had, in fact, escaped from a Bedford County deer facility last year. According to Neville, several of those tagged deer were subsequently shot by commission field officers, but all were not shot or captured.
This is not an isolated case. Early last summer a captive doe named “Purple 4,” because of her purple ear tag bearing a number 4, escaped from an unlicensed deer facility near Alexandria, in Huntingdon County. That deer had originated from the New Oxford, Adams County deer farm, where a captive deer died from CWD last fall. Purple 4 was first sold to Freedom Whitetails in Freedom Township, Blair County, and then sold to unlicensed deer farmer Gordon Trimer, who lives between Alexandria and Barree. Again — perhaps no coincidence — Freedom Township is one of the Blair County townships where a wild deer has now tested positive for CWD.
According to Neville, some of the escaped Bedford County deer had also been connected to “Purple 4.” That is, they may have been housed at the same deer farm where Purple 4 had been penned — making the transmission of CWD possible between deer.
Signs of chronic wasting disease include weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, and abnormal behavior such as stumbling, trembling and lethargic movement — they just “waste” away. Infected deer and elk may also allow unusually close approach by humans or natural predators. Anyone seeing a deer with these symptoms should report it to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The disease is caused by a prion, and there is no known treatment or vaccine. Prions are rogue protein molecules that infect the nerve cord and brains of diseased cervids — deer, elk and moose. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the term “prions” refers to abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and are able to induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins called prion proteins that are found most abundantly in the brain. In the case of CWD, the prions cause brain lesions in infected deer and eventually kill the animal. CWD is spread from deer to deer through urine, saliva, and solid wastes of infected animals.
Purple 4 was eventually shot by a hunter — lab analysis did not detect CWD in its brain tissue.
According to Neville, as of March 15, the test results from all of the hunter-harvested elk and nearly 3,000 deer are now in. Only the three already-identified deer have tested positive - that is three deer in 15 years of PGC testing.
However, Neville also cautioned, “CWD was not detected in these deer and elk, which is unfortunately not the same as saying that they don’t have the disease. Current testing procedures do not detect the early stages of the disease. Since the disease develops slowly, we don’t even test six-month-old deer.”
Of course, hunters and wildlife lovers wonder now that CWD is in the wild deer herd - where do we go from here?
According to Cal DuBrock, director of the PGC’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, no state has managed to eliminate the disease once it has taken a foothold.
“What we will be doing is managing risk factors,” DuBrock said. At the March 4 press conference, DuBrock noted that his agency was still discussing possible plans of action. He anticipates that an executive order will be issued, pertaining to these new CWD developments within the next few months.
He expects that this order will include increased surveillance of road-killed deer as well as those taken for crop damage. Other options include the banning of deer feeding and mineral licks, prohibiting the use of deer urine for hunting, and mandatory check stations for hunter-killed deer — as was done in Adams and York counties last fall.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has scheduled a public meeting for March 20 at the Spring Cove Middle School, Roaring Spring, beginning at 7 p.m. It is expected that DuBrock, PGC Executive Director Carl Roe and representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture will be present to address public concerns and provide more information.
We can only wait and see what course of action the Commission takes. We as hunters and wildlife lovers can keep our fingers crossed and hope that no additional cases are found. Maybe we might be as lucky as the state of New York and contain this deadly disease before it becomes widespread.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the PA Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.