Like several hundred other area hunters, I attended the public meeting last week at Roaring Spring regarding the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease among wild deer in Blair and Bedford counties.
Game Commission veterinarian, Walt Cottrel, gave a comprehensive program covering all aspects of CWD and fielded dozens of questions from the audience about this disease and how it will ultimately affect deer and deer hunting in this region and throughout Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the facts about CWD impart no cause for optimism.
I have followed the relentless expansion of CWD for more than 10 years, hoping all the while it would never make it to Pennsylvania. When I first wrote about CWD back then, I described it as something out of a farfetched science-fiction novel; since then, that gloomy characterization has probably become even worse. CWD is a contagious disease that attacks the brain and nervous system of members of the deer family, including whitetails, mule deer, elk and moose. There is no preventive vaccine, no way to test live animals for CWD, no treatment for it and certainly no cure. Once an animal becomes infected with CWD, the disease is always fatal.
CWD is not caused by a virus, bacterium, or other microorganism, but rather by an abnormal infectious protein particle known as a prion (pronounced pree-on). Because prions are not living organisms, they are extremely difficult to destroy. Research has revealed prions can exist in soil for at least 16 years and probably much longer. Scientists believe CWD can be spread both by direct animal-to-animal contact and indirect contact with soil or some other surface containing the infectious agent. Although CWD is related to mad cow disease, there is no evidence it can be passed to humans by any normal means, but consuming the meat of an animal known to be infected with CWD is not recommended.
An animal infected with CWD often behaves abnormally, staggering or standing with legs spread apart, carrying its head or ears lowered. In the advanced stages, the animal becomes emaciated and sickly looking until death takes its toll. Many other diseases, however, can exhibit many of the same symptoms as CWD. The average incubation period for CWD is typically 12 to 24 months but can be as long as five years. An animal exposed to CWD can be capable of spreading the infection for at least 11 months before exhibiting any symptoms of the disease. Male deer tend to have a higher rate of infection than females.
CWD was first identified as a disease in 1976 in captive mule deer at a wildlife research facility in Colorado and in 1979 in captive mule deer at a Wyoming research facility. The first documented case of CWD in a wild animal occurred in 1981 with a wild elk in Colorado. In 1985, wild mule deer in both Colorado and Wyoming were identified with CWD. Captive elk with CWD were found in Saskatchewan in 1996 and South Dakota 1997.
The discovery of CWD in wild white-tailed deer Wisconsin and Illinois during 2002 marked the first time the disease was documented east of the Mississippi River. When CWD was found in wild whitetails in New York and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia during 2005, and then in western Maryland in 2010 just south of the Pennsylvania border, it seemed inevitable that CWD would be showing up here sooner rather than later.
That dreaded occurrence came last October when captive deer in Adams County were found to have CWD, followed the news earlier this month that three deer killed by hunters last fall during the regular deer season in WMU 4A tested positive for CWD.
So how bad could this be? Based on more than 30 years of experience since CWD appeared in the wild, the outlook is not hopeful. Cottrel bluntly summed up the situation in his presentation, noting that CWD has never been stopped anywhere it has occurred, and once the disease gains a foothold somewhere, it always gets worse and always spreads.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has established a disease management area where it will focus efforts to monitor and contain the presence of CWD in the deer herd there. A map of this DMA has been posted on the Game Commission website, pgc.state.pa.us.
On the "Quick Clicks" box right side of the homepage, click the link "CWD Information." There along with the map, you will find a wealth of information about CWD. I would encourage all hunters, landowners and anyone else who cares about white-tailed deer to become informed about this insidious threat to that great resource.
In the next few weeks, expect an executive order that will detail the various restrictions and other measures that will be in effect throughout the DMA for the foreseeable future.
Understanding and complying with those restrictions will be an important responsibility for hunters and landowners as well in order to keep the presence of CWD in our region in check as much as possible for as long as possible.