It sounds serious: According to a 2011 response plan, Pennsylvania is already at "Threat Level 1," the maximum danger for the deadly, contagious animal illness called chronic wasting disease.
With deer season just a week away, hunters outside Adams and York counties - the disease's ground zero in Pennsylvania - shouldn't expect changes yet, state Game Commission officials said. But if the illness spreads, sweeping changes to hunting rules could be implemented in seasons to come.
"There's been a lot of concern," Game Commission regional Law Enforcement Supervisor Richard Danley said last week.
Since two captive deer died from Chronic Wasting Disease at an Adams County farm, the disease, which doesn't appear to affect humans, has seemingly remained manageable: State officials quarantined farms that had hosted deer with even remote connections to the Adams County case, the first ever in Pennsylvania.
But amid news that two connected deer had escaped into the wild, including one near Alexandria, Huntingdon County, some experts have said it's only a matter of time before the little-understood brain disease takes hold outside the quarantine.
"We knew that it would eventually work it's way here ... that it would walk across the border," Danley said.
The animal disease, which causes lesions, emaciation and bizarre behavior ending in certain death, first approached Pennsylvania in fall 2010, when a hunter in Allegany County, Maryland, killed an infected deer, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Deer Project Manager Brian Eyler said.
Allegany County lies across the border from Bedford County.
"The writing's on the wall," Eyler said.
The upstate Maryland infection so far hasn't been detected in any other deer there, he said, noting that the diseased animal may have wandered from West Virginia's widely affected Eastern Panhandle.
"They're slowly documenting the spread in West Virginia," Eyler said - since the first case there in 2005, Chronic Wasting Disease has spread from county to county and ultimately to wild deer across the Virginia border.
In Pennsylvania, state wildlife officials have moved swiftly to stamp out the threat. Hunters in a wide swath of York and Adams counties next week will be ordered to check all kills with testing stations, with citations for those caught ignoring the rule.
State officials will also step up testing of deer heads from butcher shops along the Maryland border, including in Somerset and Bedford counties, Danley said. Hunters outside the York-Adams zone won't be subject to forced tests or additional restrictions, he said.
Meanwhile, Game Commission officers are keeping an eye out for the escaped Alexandria deer, for whose corpse private citizens have already issued rewards.
"Searching for a single deer is like a needle in a haystack," Danley said. "The best-case scenario is that it was struck on the road and picked up by PennDOT."
According to the state's Chronic Wasting Disease response plan issued in summer 2011, rules changes could ultimately be implemented to keep the deer population - and with it, the likelihood of transmission - down.
The plan lists "removal of protection for deer and elk" and "altering existing hunting seasons" as possible policy changes, followed by renewed limits once the population is cut sufficiently.
Facing an outbreak more than 10 years ago, Wisconsin attempted similar methods to keep population density down. They didn't work, Eyler said.
A recent map by the National Wildlife Health Center shows more than a dozen affected counties there.
Many experts, including government officials, game officers and deer farmers, express an obvious sense of fatalism when discussing the disease's arrival in Pennsylvania. Once it starts, they say, it's difficult to stop.
"It's not a matter of 'if,'" Eyler said last week. "It's a matter of 'when.'"
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.