HARRISBURG — Samples taken from hunter-killed elk during the state’s 2004 hunting season have all tested negative for chronic wasting disease (CWD), according to Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross.

Based on a significant increase in the number of deer samples collected for testing, Ross noted that the Game Commission still is awaiting the results of the more than 3,600 hunter-killed deer samples collected during the 2004 seasons. In 2003, the agency collected samples from more than 2,000 hunter-killed deer, and all results came back negative for CWD.

“Currently, there are no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD-infected deer or elk in Pennsylvania, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that it stays that way,” Ross said. “By conducting these random tests on hunter-killed deer and elk, we will help to assure ourselves and the general public that it is unlikely that CWD is present in wild deer and elk in the state.”

CWD tests on the elk samples were conducted by the New Bolton Center, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory. Under a contract with Penn State University, the elk samples also were tested for brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis and found to be free from these diseases.

The New Bolton Center and the Department of Agriculture’s State Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg are conducting the CWD tests on the deer samples. Results are expected in the near future.

All costs for conducting these tests are covered by a $54,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; any Game Fund dollars spent are reimbursed. The federal grant covers all testing, materials, supplies and some of the agency’s personnel costs for sample collection.

Samples were collected from more than 3,600 randomly selected hunter-killed deer from the two-week rifle deer season, and 32 of the 34 hunter-killed elk in 2004. This marked the fourth year for testing hunter-killed elk and the third year for testing hunter-killed deer.

“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 hunter-killed deer and 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.”

Ross added that, since 1998, the Game Commission, in cooperation with the state Department of Agriculture, has tested more than 350 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior. No evidence of CWD has been found in these samples. The Game Commission will continue to monitor and collect samples from deer and elk that appear sick or behave abnormally.

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 up to 18 months, and then death follows normally within the next year.

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

Anyone who sees Pennsylvania deer or elk behaving oddly, that appear to be very sick, or that are dying for unknown reasons are urged to contact the nearest Game Commission Region Office. Individuals should not kill the animal.

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 have completed a response plan in the event CWD is found in Pennsylvania. The interagency task force focused 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.

“We are very serious about preventing CWD from entering Pennsylvania,” said Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management Assistant Director Bob Boyd, who has been overseeing the agency’s wildlife disease issues. “Some scientific modeling suggests that, if nothing is done to contain an outbreak of the disease, CWD could cause a local deer population’s demise within 20 to 25 years in states with high-density deer populations, such as Pennsylvania.

“We also are concerned about the potential environmental contamination that could be caused by CWD, as well as the serious economic impact that would result.”

To learn more about CWD, visit the agency’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) and click on “Hunting & Trapping” and then select “Chronic Wasting Disease.”