No ‘nuclear option’ for CWD here

Harrisburg — If and when chronic wasting disease shows up in Pennsylvania deer, Game Commission officials won’t overreact, they revealed at their recent meeting here.

The subject came up when Cal DuBrock, director of the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, reported to commissioners that results of CWD tests from about 4,000 hunter-killed deer last fall were late, but expected any day now.

After watching wildlife managers in other states, such as Wisconsin, kill thousands of deer trying to “depopulate” areas where CWD was discovered – and still not eradicate the disease – the commission will take a more “measured” approach.

“We don’t intend to hit the panic button,” DuBrock said. “We won’t be employing the nuclear option if and when CWD shows up.”

He pointed out that the commission has a CWD response plan ready if it happens.

“We will be looking at changes in regulations, but we will not employ the scorched-earth policy,” DuBrock said. “We have seen that approach done by other state agencies, and it has been to the detriment of both the resource and the hunters.

“And, frankly, it didn’t stop CWD.”

In Wisconsin, after CWD was found in wild deer about a decade ago, hunters eventually balked at pleas from that state’s Department of Natural Resources to steeply ramp up the deer harvest in infected areas.

After hunters failed or refused to kill enough deer, the state was forced to change its tactics.

As a result, the Game Commission intends to take a more reasoned approach, added Carl Roe, commission executive director, intensifying sampling and working with sportsmen, and the state Department of Agriculture to create a CWD management zone.

He indicated there will be no wholesale slaughter of deer.

“In watching what happened in Wisconsin – where they spent millions and millions and millions of dollars in an overreaction, employing the nuclear option – we know we do not want to do that here,” he said.

“There will be an increase in testing in the area, but we know the prion [that infects the brains of deer and elk and causes the  disease] doesn’t go away, no matter how many deer are killed.”

In February 2011, CWD was discovered in a deer in northern Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania border.

The disease earlier had been discovered in West Virginia and Virginia, and to the Keystone State’s north in southern New York.

Roe and various game commissioners have long taken the stance that it is not a question of if CWD will be found in Pennsylvania, but rather when.

Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, pointed out that the nuclear option might still be a viable option if the commission learned that a captive deer was found to be infected, and it was known that it had contact with wild deer.

Since the Maryland case was discovered, the commission has intensified its targeted CWD surveillance.

At the recent meeting, DuBrock noted that the commission will soon ink an agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to collect deer samples to be tested for CWD.

“PennDOT arranges with contractors in specific areas to pick up  and dispose of road-killed deer, and the contract gives us an opportunity to have CWD tests done on deer collected along the roads in Bedford, Franklin, Fulton and Somerset counties,” he said.

“Those are the counties across the border from where CWD was discovered in the Maryland deer.

“The assumption is that we are going to find it close to the Maryland case, but it is possible that it will show up somewhere else,” DuBrock explained.

DuBrock also disclosed that the commission will soon begin work with the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences to have a graduate student model how CWD would progress in Pennsylvania.

“We are going to try to look at the prevalence of CWD and see how it would progress on the landscape and what we could  expect to see as it spreads from the south into Pennsylvania,” he said.

“If we know how it might spread over time into other areas, that will  help us in terms of monitoring its progress and assessing the risk.”

One of the challenges if CWD is discovered here will be the requirement not to allow deer parts out of the infected area, DuBrock said.

Although the results of CWD tests of hunter-killed deer from last fall are late, DuBrock said that he was optimistic that they would again be negative. The disease has never been seen in the commonwealth.

However the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolten Center, which has always performed the CWD tests for the commission, will not continue to handle the task.

“The extended delay this year on the samples is due to the fact that the equipment at New Bolton is now obsolete and not likely to be replaced,” he said.

“Consequently, we have begun to create a contractual relationship with the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Laboratory to insure future capacity and response.”

DuBrock said that Game Commission officials have had meetings with wildlife managers in other Eastern states to discuss sampling for chronic wasting disease.

First identified in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects cervids, including all species of deer, elk and moose.

It is a progressive and always fatal disease of the nervous system. 

Scientists theorize CWD is caused by an agent called a prion that is capable of transforming normal brain proteins into an abnormal form, which in turn causes the death of brain cells.

There currently is no practical way to test live animals for CWD, nor is there a vaccine. 

According to the Game Commission, clinical signs include poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough-hair coat, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling, and, ultimately, death. 

There is currently no scientific evidence that CWD has or can spread to humans, either through contact with infected animals or by eating meat of infected animals.

The Center for Disease Control has investigated any connection between CWD and the human forms of TSEs and stated “the risk of infection with the CWD agent among hunters is extremely small, if it exists at all,” and “it is extremely unlikely that CWD would be a food-borne hazard.”

CWD has been known to exist in low levels in Western states’ deer herds, such as Colorado, but scientists for decades feared that if the disease reached the Midwest and East – with their much-more-dense deer populations – it would wipe out deer populations.

So far that has not happened.

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