NORTHUMBERLAND — To date this year, 283 cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) have been confirmed in Pennsylvania. By contrast, just two were confirmed in 2012, the first year the disease was discovered in the state.
Jared Turner, a Pennsylvania Game Commission game warden covering northern Northumberland and Mountour counties, was one of two keynote speakers during a presentation on CWD held at The Little Sportsman Shop. He presented those statistics while exemplifying how rapidly the disease is spreading in Pennsylvania.
Courtney Colley, CWD communications specialist with the game commission, also spoke. She asked those in attendance to review and comment on the 2020 CWD Response Plan Proposal.
“CWD is an always fatal disease that affects members of the deer family,” Turner explained. “At this time, there is no cure.”
According to information provided by the game commission, CWD is caused by by misshaped proteins that create holes in the brain.
Turner said the disease can be spread through deer-to-deer contact, as well as through saliva, urine and feces.
“When it ends up in the landscape, it can be present for a number of years,” Turner said. “It is very temperature resistant. It can freeze and still exist.”
In contrast, he said it can also be heated to extreme temperatures and still survive.
Turner also noted that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends individuals not eat meat from deer known to have the disease.
“It is very closely related to mad cow disease,” Turner said, of CWD. “In Europe, they put down millions of cattle… because they knew it could spread to humans.”
He added that there are no known cases of humans contracting CWD.
The first known case of CWD in Pennsylvania was confirmed in 2012. Since then, Turner said the disease has continued to spread in the state. In 2013, three cases were confirmed, with the number growing to five in 2014, 12 in 2015, 25 in 2016, 79 in 2017 and 123 in 2018.
Colley expects the number to grow from the 283 cases already confirmed this year.
“We will get the bulk of our positives (for CWD) in hunting season,” she noted.
While the bulk of cases have been confirmed in the south central portion of the state, Colley said CWD has been found in deer in Snyder, Juniata and Perry counties.
In areas where the disease has been found, Turner said the game commission has placed boxes where hunters can deposit the heads from harvested deer for testing. The closest collection box is located at the Middleburg Borough Municipal Shed.
Turner advised those placing heads in the boxes to leave their yellow deer tags attached so they can be notified of the test results.
“If you want the antlers from the head, you need to take them off before you put the head in the bin,” Turner said.
Cases of CWD are confirmed through deer heads which are tested after being placed in the bins. Turner said dead deer collected by the game wardens, including deer killed along the highways, are also tested.
He also explained that areas where CWD have been confirmed are designated disease management areas. In those areas, it is illegal to feed, attract or transport certain parts of the deer out of the area.
Parts which cannot be transported, in an effort to help prevent the spread of CWD, include the brain, eyes, lymph node, spleen and spinal column.
He also explained why the disease tends to be concentrated in certain areas.
“Think of it as the flu,” Turner noted. “If you have it, who is the next person going to get it?… It’s traveling from family group to family group, from deer to deer. Deer also travel outside of their home area.”
Colley said Pennsylvania’s CWD Response Plan was last updated in 2011, before the first case of the disease was discovered in the state.
The game commission has released a proposed plan and is accepting public input on the plan until Feb. 29. The plan is available for review online at www.pgc.pa.gov.
Colley said constructive public input on the plan is needed before it is finalized.
“Give us your honest comments and give us a proposal,” she said. “You may give us an idea we haven’t thought of.”
Given there is no known cure for the disease, Colley said it’s a difficult issue to combat.
“We are stuck between ‘do we sit here and do nothing and watch it spread or do we at least try to do something?’” she said.
Colley said the plan focuses on controlling the deer population, in order to reduce the chances of the disease spreading.
“We want to lower the deer (population) to a healthy level to help slow down the spread,” she said.
The proposal includes taking the following measures in disease management areas: Increasing tag allocations; extending hunting seasons; and not placing point restrictions on harvested deer.
Another option, Colley said, could be to contract United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sharpshooters to conduct targeted removal of deer from disease management areas.
“They are very well trained, they are very good at what they do,” Colley said, of the sharpshooters.
She said the USDA does use baiting techniques when conducting targeted removals.
“That’s very controversial,” Colley said. “It helps them have a better shot. They do sit on these bait piles and they do shoot every deer that comes in.”
Before conducting the targeted removals, Colley said the game commission would receive written permission from property owners to do so.
Meat from deer not testing positive for CWD but taken through targeted enforcements would be donated to local food banks, Colley said. Property owners would also be entitled to an allocation of the meat.
“These targeted removals won’t be happening on mass scales,” Colley said. “They are trying to get the family groups… that are more likely to be (CWD) positive.”
The presentation was sponsored by Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver (R-108). Approximately 65 people were in attendance.