Harrisburg — It’s going to be a long, hard road from here.
The discovery of chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania – albeit in one deer in one facility to date – is likely going to cost the Pennsylvania Game Commission and sportsmen lots of money and perhaps lead to changes in long-standing habits and traditions, say experts from around the country.
Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal ailment that attacks deer, elk and moose. There is no cure for it. There is also no evidence that it can be transmitted to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Still, no one wants it, so it was a shock when the long-dreaded news that CWD had been discovered here was delivered Oct. 11 in a press conference held jointly by the Game Commission and Pennsylvania departments of Health and Agriculture. They announced that a doe on a “hobby-type” deer farm in New Oxford, Adams County, had tested positive for the disease.
Craig Shultz, veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said that facility and two others – one in Lycoming County and another in York – where the deer was known to have been during its lifetime were immediately quarantined.
The latter two farms did not have deer on them when the quarantine was announced. The Adams County facility did, though, and all of those animals were going to be euthanized and tested for the disease.
“Depopulation of the facility is really the only choice we have. There is no live animal test,” Shultz said.
What happens next “all depends on further testing,” Shultz said.
“This is all very preliminary,” he said.
The state’s interagency CWD task force – made up of representatives of the Game Commission, departments of Environmental Protection, Health and Agriculture the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Penn State’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Science – met the same day as the press conference.
The Game Commission held an internal meeting of its own a day later.
“Our focus is going to be solely on what we’re going to do with the areas immediately around these farms. And no decisions have been made,” said spokesman Jerry Feaser.
Officials were quick to say that efforts are under way to control the disease, though.
“Pennsylvania has an aggressive chronic wasting disease surveillance program and a strong response plan,” said Agriculture Secretary George Greig in a prepared statement. “Steps are being taken to prevent further spread of this disease to the state’s captive and wild deer populations.”
It might already be too late, said Kip Adams, a certified wildlife biologist and director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association in Pennsylvania. It’s likely the disease is going to wind up in the wild deer herd, if it’s not there already, he said. That’s been the pattern elsewhere.
He points to Missouri as an example. That state found CWD in a captive deer herd in 2010. In 2012 – after years of sampling wild deer with no evidence of the disease found – CWD showed up in wild deer on property very near the infected facility.
“I’m fully expecting them to find more CWD-positive deer here, in the wild, just because that’s what everybody else has experienced. I don’t see why Pennsylvania would be any different,” Adams said.
It’s long been suspected that the movement of deer from state to state – for the purposes of stocking deer farms and hunting preserves – is to blame for CWD’s spread to 23 states and Canadian provinces, said Mike Miller, veterinarian with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and the nation’s leading expert on the disease.
CWD is spread by deer-to-deer contact or by deer coming in contact with soil and vegetation that’s been contaminated by the urine, feces and saliva of sick deer, he said.
The disease was discovered in a captive deer herd in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1967. It wasn’t detected in wild herds there until 1981, didn’t move outside of Colorado until jumping to neighboring Wyoming in 1985 and didn’t expand beyond the Colorado/Wyoming “endemic zone” until 1996, when it showed up on a captive elk farm in Saskatchewan.
“This disease doesn’t do anything quickly. Studying it is like watching paint dry or grass grow,” he said.
It popped up in Wisconsin in 2002, though, marking the first time the disease had moved east of the Mississippi River. It’s since spread to five other eastern states, with Pennsylvania – perhaps second only to Texas in its number of deer and elk farms -– the latest to join the club, more than 1,600 miles away from the disease’s birthplace.
“It didn’t get from wherever it came from to Pennsylvania by deer migrating. That’s not a deer walking,” Miller said.
Its presence is going to prove costly, at a time when federal funding for CWD surveillance has dried up.
The detection of CWD in other states has uniformly caused wildlife agencies to ramp up testing to look for the disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has for several years made $17 million to $19 million annually available to help pay for that work.
Maryland, for example, got $75,000 for CWD monitoring in 2010. In 2011, after the discovery of one CWD-positive deer in the wild, it got $180,000.
This year – with the total pool of money available to states slashed to about $750,000 – Maryland isn’t getting anything, said Brian Eyler, deer project leader for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
The department will have to pay for a scaled-back surveillance program on its own, using money that would have otherwise been directed to wildlife management, habitat creation and hunter issues, he said.
“We’ll still be able to do our testing, but instead of it being a Cadillac, it will be a Yugo,” Eyler said.
“It does require significant manpower and significant funding to deal with CWD,” agreed Paul Johansen, assistant chief of game management for the Division of Natural Resources in West Virginia, where CWD was discovered in 2005.
The presence of CWD also often leads to regulation changes. In Colorado, where CWD is thought to have contributed to localized declines in mule deer populations approaching 40 percent, the number of deer licenses has been cut in places. West Virginia has outlawed the feeding and baiting of deer in the counties with CWD. Maryland has done the same, while also prohibiting the movement of most deer parts outside of its CWD zone.
It’s possible Pennsylvania could see any and all of those changes, Adams predicted.
They could last indefinitely, too, because in most places, when you get chronic wasting disease once, you’ve got it forever.
The prions that carry the disease persist in soils for “a very, very long time,” said Miller.
The CWD Alliance notes that the disease was first discovered at the Foothills Wildlife Research Facility. In 1985, 18 years after it was detected, Colorado wildlife officials treated the soil there with chlorine, removed it, applied more chlorine to what was left, and let the facility sit vacant for a year.
When they brought more deer in, the animals contracted CWD. That pattern has persisted ever since.
The one place where CWD was found, then apparently disappeared, was New York. It was found in five captive deer from two farms and in two wild deer in nearby areas in 2005.
New York quickly banned the feeding of deer and elk, established a containment zone and ramped up testing of deer in that area. No additional CWD-positive deer were ever found, and the state decommissioned its containment zone in 2010.
No one knows why New York got lucky that way. But no one is counting on being the next to eradicate the disease either.
Maryland has found just one CWD-positive wild deer within its borders so far. But with the disease established just across the Potomac River in West Virginia and now only 12 miles away in Pennsylvania’s Adams
County, living with the disease is probably going to be a fact of life, said Eyler.
“We’re not approaching this as something that we’re going to be able to get rid of,” Eyler said. “We are trying to contain it or at last slow its spread. But we’re not fooling ourselves and thinking we’re going to be able to get rid of it.”
The presence of the disease will not mean the end of hunting, though.
Wisconsin saw a 25 percent drop in hunting license sales the year after CWD was discovered, Adams said. Things have rebounded since then, however, and hunters in other states have reacted less dramatically to finding the disease in their home states, he said.
In West Virginia, the disease has prompted some changes in hunter behavior, Johansen said. In Hampshire County, ground zero for the disease, hunters have shown a tendency to move a number of miles away from traditional spots to avoid CWD, he said.
But a survey also found that 91 percent of Hampshire County deer hunters said they would continue to hunt so long as the disease didn’t spread, he added.
“We haven’t seen a complete failure in our hunting population in Hampshire County. They continue to come and they continue to hunt,” he said. “It has not shut hunting down, and that’s a good thing.”
Pennsylvania can only hope that’s the case here, even with a disease no one wanted to see finally within our borders.
“I just feel bad for all of those hunters who are going to be negatively impacted because somebody wanted a deer behind a fence,” Adams said.