In Pennsylvania, new CWD cases in southcentral


Somerset, Pa. — One of three new cases of chronic wasting disease found in a wild deer this summer represented a first.

Three sick deer were found in what the Pennsylvania Game Commission classifies as “Disease Management Area 2” this year, one in March and two in July. All were at least 30 months old, two of them does that were found dead along the road.

The third deer, though, was a buck that a wildlife conservation officer put down after responding to a call about an obviously sick deer.

It’s not uncommon for commission officers to kill and test deer under those conditions, said agency spokesman Travis Lau. That’s called for under the state’s chronic wasting disease management plan.

Officers have killed a number of deer that way, he said, though he could not provide a specific figure.

“But this was the first case where a sickly deer was reported to us and was taken down because it showed clinical signs, and then indeed tested positive,” Lau said.

That brings to 13 the number of CWD-positive deer to be found in Disease Management Area 2, which takes in about 1,700 square miles in southcentral and southwestern Pennsylvania. All were wild, free-ranging animals.

Disease Management Area 2 is the only place in the state where the disease has been found in the wild.

It was discovered in pen-raised deer in Adam and York counties in 2012 – the first time it showed up here at all – and in pen-raised deer in Jefferson County in 2014. There are disease management areas in place around those locations, too.

The latest sick deer found in disease area 2 were centrally located enough that there will likely be no changes to the area’s boundaries, Lau said. At least one of the deer, in fact, is thought to have wandered into Pennsylvania from the CWD-endemic area of Maryland, something scientists predicted would occur with some regularity.

But the presence of the sick deer hints at what is increasingly looking like a long-term problem, said commission veterinarian Justin Brown.

Only one state, that being New York, was ever able to rid itself of wasting disease. In that case, it was found in a deer pen, with some potential spillover into the wild. Wildlife officials responded aggressively, bringing in sharpshooters to remove as many deer from the area as possible, he said.

Five years of subsequent testing failed to uncover the disease, Brown said.

“They were probably just extremely lucky,” he added.

Pennsylvania likely won’t share that luck, he said. The fact that CWD has shown up in at least a few deer every year in Disease Management Area 2 since its discovery in 2013 means it is established and probably here to stay, he said.

“What we have to focus on is trying to prevent that transmission, trying to prevent that spread of the disease into new areas and into new animals, as much as possible,” Brown said.

Brown made his comments to about 150 or so hunters who packed the Berlin Borough Community Building in Somerset County. The commission invited the public in to hear about the rules regarding hunting inside Disease Management Area 2.

The area expanded westward this year, into parts of Somerset and Cambria counties, and the commission wanted to let hunters know what they’re facing.

In general, hunters will not be allowed to move high-risk parts such as deer brains, spinal columns and the like outside of the area. If they live inside the area and bag a deer there, they can take it home, butcher it themselves and dispose of the parts either in their household trash or in one of several dumpsters to be set up on state game lands.

Hunters from outside the disease area who shoot a deer within in the containment area, though, will have to take their animal to a participating processor and/or taxidermist to be worked on. They’ll only be able to bring out boned meat and cleaned skull caps.

One hunter asked Brown if he would even eat a deer from within a zone known to have chronic wasting disease.

Brown said there are likely parts of Disease Management Area 2 that have no CWD. He also said there’s no proof the disease can move from animals to humans.

But he added that he has any deer he shoots tested for CWD before consuming it.

“Personally, I test. I would. But that’s a personal decision,” he said.

Craig Schultz, a veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said hunters can take their deer – or more specifically, its head – to the department’s veterinary laboratory in Harrisburg for testing. The heads have to be double-bagged in garbage bags, and have to be taken to the lab within a day or two of harvest to avoid decomposition.

But getting the test done costs about $75 and it will take a few weeks to get results, he said.

That is an option, though, he said, if hunters are willing to store their venison for a period of time before eating it.

Hunters should wear gloves when field dressing deer, Brown added. Those who go further and butcher their own deer should wear gloves when working on an animal, Brown said, being sure to trim away all fat and connective tissue from the meat. 

That will remove the lymph nodes, one of the “high-risk” parts that could conceivably contain wasting disease.

He also recommended boning out the meat to avoid dealing with marrow, another possible reservoir of disease, and disinfecting knives and other butchering gear in a 50/50 solution of bleach and water for an hour, then rinsing them, before using them again.

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