Harrisburg — The outbreak of chronic wasting disease on a deer farm just west of DuBois discovered last April – on the doorstep of the state’s elk range – has turned out to be worse than expected, with a total of nine deer testing positive for the disease.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which initially reported that two deer on the Reynoldsville, Jefferson County, farm were found to be infected, recently reported that seven more of the 16 animals kept at the facility eventually tested positive for CWD.
Agriculture Secretary George Greig in late July called it an “unprecedented level of infection in a captive deer herd.”
Ag officials revealed that an investigation continues into any other deer farms that may have purchased from or supplied the Reynoldsville herd with deer, and additional deer farms may be quarantined. The probe reportedly involves deer farms in at least one other state.
Given the many captive deer infected with CWD, game commissioners and agency staff at their mid-August work session voiced concern the disease would spread to wild deer in the area, and that they would eventually carry it the 30 miles or so to the southern edge of the five-county elk range.
“My concern is what happens after those positive Jefferson County deer urinated on the ground and those [disease causing] prions flowed outside the fence where we are responsible – is that a concern?” Commissioner Jay Delaney said.
“Yes, that is a concern,” replied Bob Boyd, Game Commission wildlife services division chief. “There is a significant risk factor there.” Also, commission staff pointed out there may have been nose-to-nose contact between the many infected captive deer and wild deer through the single wire fence.
In addition, Boyd pointed out that many of Pennsylvanian’s deer farms will be changing from “certified CWD free” to “monitored” status, meaning that they will not be allowed to move deer outside of the state, but they will still be allowed to move deer among farms in the state.
That change in designation under Department of Agriculture regulations is problematic for the Game Commission, Boyd noted.
“They are expecting a significant drop in the number of certified herds in Pennsylvania, with most facilities going to ‘monitored’,” he explained.
“The testing requirements associated with monitored herds are less stringent. This is a good change for other states, but it’s not good for Pennsylvania and its wildlife.
“The less-stringent testing requirements for monitored herds probably represents the most significant risk factor we have for the spreading of CWD.”
Boyd disclosed the Game Commission’s CWD surveillance plan for the upcoming deer hunting season, focusing on disease management areas – or DMAs.
“We will take 500 samples in DMAs 1 and 3, where we don’t have any evidence of CWD being in wild deer, and 2,000 samples in DMA 2, which is our largest DMA, where chronic wasting disease is known to be in wild, free ranging deer, and 3,000 samples taken in the rest of the state.”
The Reynoldsville farm outbreak brings to 14 the number of deer in the state to test positive for CWD since 2012. So far, five cases have been found in wild, free-ranging whitetails.
“Chronic wasting disease is making its way across the state and we’re doing everything we can to stop its spread,” said Greig. “By working with the Game Commission, state and national deer farmers associations and researchers from across the nation, we can better combat the disease.”
The ag department allowed researchers from Kansas State University, in cooperation with state and national deer-farming associations, to take samples from the infected deer on the Reynoldsville farm before they were destroyed. The samples are being used in research searching for live-animal diagnostic tests to detect the disease.
Postmortem samples were distributed to United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary and Wildlife Services and Agricultural Research Services for additional research about the disease. “The department and deer farmers worked together to accommodate the requests of these researchers,” Greig said.
“The more we know, the greater the chance we can eradicate the disease.”
Chronic wasting disease attacks the brains of infected antlered animals such as deer, elk and moose, producing small lesions that eventually result in death. Animals can get the disease through direct contact with saliva, feces and urine from an infected animal.
There is no evidence that humans or livestock can get the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms include weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, and abnormal behavior such as stumbling and trembling. Infected deer and elk may also allow unusually close approach by humans or natural predators.
The disease is fatal, and there is no known treatment or vaccine.
Two captive deer on an Adams County farm tested positive for chronic wasting disease in 2012. During the investigation, the ag department quarantined 27 farms in 16 counties associated with the positive samples. Since then, five farms remain quarantined. Surveillance for the disease has been ongoing in Pennsylvania since 1998.
The Department of Agriculture coordinates a mandatory surveillance program for more than 23,000 captive deer on 1,100 breeding farms, hobby farms and shooting preserves.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission collects samples from hunter-harvested deer and elk and those that appear sick or behave abnormally. Since 1998, the commission has tested more than 38,000 free-ranging deer and elk for the disease.