HARRISBURG – With the recent approval of Pennsylvania’s Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Response Plan, the Board of Game Commissioners today gave final approval to a measure granting certain emergency authorities to the executive director to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD), if it is discovered in or near the state or poses a serious threat to the Commonwealth’s deer and elk populations.

“We are pleased that CWD has not been found in Pennsylvania,” said Vern Ross, Game Commission executive director. “However, with recent news of CWD being found in New York and West Virginia, Pennsylvania and its hunters must increase its awareness of the disease, about what is required to ensure that it is not brought into our state and how we must respond if it is found in our wild or captive deer and elk.

“Last week, we issued a news release outlining what Pennsylvania hunters going to other states can do to make sure that they do not unintentionally bring back potentially infected material. We also have been working with other state agencies on the Pennsylvania CWD task force to ensure we are doing all we can to monitor wild and captive deer and elk. The Board’s action today is consistent with those discussions, and is a solid step forward to reduce our potential exposure.”

The new regulation grants the executive director the authority to, if CWD is identified within the state’s borders, prohibit feeding of deer in a defined containment area if the spread of CWD poses a threat to human safety, farm animals, pets or wildlife in the Commonwealth, and to ban the importation of certain high-risk deer or elk parts, such as the lymph nodes, brain and spinal cord.

“While current state law and regulation prohibits the feeding of elk and bears, we recognize that many Pennsylvanians enjoy feeding other wildlife, and we do not anticipate prohibiting those feeding activities unless or until CWD poses a threat to our deer and elk,” said Vern Ross, Game Commission executive director. “However, we fully expect to implement the ban on importing certain high-risk deer and elk parts as soon as possible as a means of preventing hunters from unintentionally bringing back to our state material that could potentially cause the introduction of CWD into our state.”

Ross noted that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, with the support of the Game Commission, issued an order to ban the importation of specific carcass parts from states and Canadian provinces that have a history of CWD in free-ranging deer populations, with one exception. States named in the order are: Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Parts are banned only from Hampshire County in West Virginia, where four deer recently have tested positive for CWD.

Also, since New York officials have imposed a ban on removing specific carcass parts from a specified containment area in New York, Pennsylvania has not included New York on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s importation ban, which took effect on Oct. 1.

Specific carcass parts, where the CWD prion (causative substance) concentrates in cervids, listed in the Department of Agriculture’s order as being prohibited from being brought back to Pennsylvania by hunters are: head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and retropharyngeal lymph nodes); spinal cord/backbone; spleen; skull plate with attached antlers, if visible brain or spinal cord material is present; cape, if visible brain or spinal cord material is present; upper canine teeth, if root structure or other soft material is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord material; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.

Ross noted that the order does not limit the importation of the following animal parts originating from any hunter-harvested cervid in the quarantined states or area: meat, without the backbone; skull plate with attached antlers, if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present; tanned hide or raw hide with no visible brain or spinal cord material present; cape, if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present; upper canine teeth, if no root structure or other soft material is present; and finished taxidermy mounts.

First identified in Colorado in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects members of the deer family (cervids), including white-tailed deer and elk. It is a progressive and always fatal disease, which scientists theorize is caused by an unknown agent capable of transforming normal brain proteins into an abnormal form. Once the abnormal form is created, it changes the shape of adjacent proteins and causes holes to form in brain tissue.

There currently is no practical way to test live animals for CWD, no cure for animals that contact the disease and no vaccine to prevent an animal from contracting the disease. Clinical signs include poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough-hair coat, decreased appetite, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling, and, ultimately, death.

There is no scientific evidence of CWD being transmitted to humans or to other non-cervid livestock under normal conditions.

Deer or elk harboring CWD may not show any signs of the disease for the first year or so, however, death normally follows within a year of when symptoms begin.

Those states where CWD has been found in wild or captive deer or elk herds are: Colorado; Wyoming; Montana; Utah; New Mexico; New York; South Dakota; Nebraska; Kansas; Oklahoma; Minnesota; Wisconsin; West Virginia; and Illinois. In addition, CWD has been detected in wild or captive deer and elk in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

This year, as in previous years, the Game Commission collected samples from hunter-killed deer during the two-week rifle deer season and samples from hunter-killed elk for CWD testing. This marked the fourth year for testing hunter-killed elk and the third year for testing hunter-killed deer. In total, 162 elk have been tested and 6,259 deer have been tested. So far, all samples collected have been negative.

“The test results are good news,” Ross said. “Although CWD has not been found in Pennsylvania, we must continue to be vigilant in our CWD monitoring efforts. The surveillance information we are gathering is important for the early detection of CWD.

“We already are planning to continue random testing of 4,000 hunter-killed deer and all hunter-killed elk during the 2005-2006 seasons, and we are pleased that the Pennsylvania and U.S. Departments of Agriculture will continue to play an important role in this disease surveillance program.”

The Game Commission, the Governor’s Policy Office, state Department of Agriculture, state Department of Health, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed a CWD response plan for Pennsylvania nearly two years ago, and it was signed by all task force agencies on Sept. 21. The response plan focuses on ways to prevent CWD from entering the Commonwealth and to ensure early detection should CWD enter the state, and has laid out a comprehensive response plan to contain and eradicate CWD should it be found within the state.

In other CWD-related action, the Board approved providing information for a mail survey to be conducted by Pennsylvania State University and the state Department of Agriculture of about 800 Pennsylvania hunters to measure their knowledge of CWD. The survey will gather baseline data of hunters, deer and elk farmers, taxidermists and deer processors about: their knowledge of CWD and perceptions of risk; their intentions and concerns about continued hunting and willingness to participate in providing samples for testing; their educational needs; and other pertinent CWD-related topics of interest.