HARRISBURG — Samples taken from hunter-killed elk during the state’s 2005 hunting season have all tested negative for chronic wasting disease (CWD), according to Dr. Walt Cottrell, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s new wildlife veterinarian.

Based on a significant increase in the number of deer samples collected for testing, Cottrell noted that the Game Commission still is awaiting the results of the more than 3,800 hunter-killed deer samples collected during the 2005 seasons. In 2004, the agency collected samples from 3,699 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,” Cottrell 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.

“With CWD confirmed in New York and West Virginia, we obviously need to keep a watchful eye on our wild and captive deer and elk. Working closely with the state Department of Agriculture and other agency representatives on the state’s CWD Task Force, we are doing all that we can to protect our state’s herds from this always-fatal disease.”

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 is conducting the CWD tests on the deer samples. Results are expected in March.

All costs for conducting these tests are covered by a 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 submitted from 3,848 randomly selected hunter-killed deer from the two-week rifle deer season, and 34 of the 35 hunter-killed elk in 2004. This marked the fifth year for testing hunter-killed elk and the fourth year for testing hunter-killed deer.

“The test results are good news,” Cottrell 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, and we already are planning to continue random testing of hunter-killed deer and elk during the 2006-07 seasons.”

Cottrell added that, since 1998, the Game Commission, in cooperation with the state Department of Agriculture, has tested more than 400 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.

The Game Commission, with the assistance of the Department of Agriculture, has conducted tests on 162 elk and 6,259 deer killed by hunters in Pennsylvania over the past four and three years, respectively. No evidence of CWD has been found in these samples.

First identified in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects cervids, including all species of 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.

There currently is no practical way to test live animals for CWD, and there is no vaccine to prevent an animal from contracting the disease, nor is there a cure for animals that become infected. Clinical signs include poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough-hair coat, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling, and, ultimately, death. There is no evidence of CWD being transmissible to humans or to other non-cervid livestock under normal conditions.

Deer harboring CWD may not show any symptoms in the disease’s early stages. As it progresses, infected animals become very emaciated and their hair has a very disheveled appearance. Drooling is sometimes apparent. Deer often hang out near water, which some consume in large amounts. They also may use an exaggerated wide posture to stay standing.

Hunters who see deer 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. Hunters should not kill animals that appear to be sick.

“We count on hunters to be our eyes when they head out to hunt deer,” Cottrell said. “With the help of the nearly one million deer hunters who go afield, we can cover a lot of ground.

“Hunters should be mindful of wildlife health issues, but no more so than in recent years. We must keep the threat posed by CWD in perspective. At this point, we have no evidence that CWD is in Pennsylvania, or that it poses health problems for humans. Remember, we’ve been living with rabies – which does affect people – in Pennsylvania since the early 1980s.”

Hunters should shoot only animals that appear to be healthy and behave normally. It also is recommended that they use rubber gloves for field dressing. These are simple precautions that hunters can follow to ensure their hunt remains a safe and pleasurable experience.

CWD is present in free-ranging and captive wildlife populations in 14 states and two Canadian provinces. However, the Game Commission has been working with other state agencies to protect the Commonwealth’s wild and captive deer and elk.

Recently, the Game Commission issued an order banning the importation of specific carcass parts from states and Canadian provinces where CWD had been identified in free-ranging cervid populations.

The ban closely mirrors a similar ban issued on Sept. 21 by the state Department of Agriculture, with the support of the Game Commission. Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff used his emergency powers to issue the ban pending action by the Board of Game Commissioners to grant similar emergency powers to the agency’s executive director.

Hunters traveling to the following states will need to abide by the importation restrictions: Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The ban also impacts hunters traveling to Hampshire County in West Virginia, and those hunting within any specified containment zones in New York proactively identified by that state’s Department of Environment and Conservation. New York DEC officials already banned hunters from removing specific carcass parts from an area where CWD was identified early this year to prevent the possible inadvertent spread of the disease within the state’s borders.

Specific carcass parts prohibited from being imported into 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; and brain-tanned hides.

Cottrell noted that the order does not limit the importation of the following animal parts originating from any cervid in the quarantined states, provinces 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 taxidermy mounts.

In September, members of the Pennsylvania CWD task force signed the state’s response plan, which outlines ways to prevent CWD from entering our borders and, if CWD is in Pennsylvania, how to detect it, contain it and work to eradicate it. The task force was comprised of representatives from the Governor’s Office, the Game Commission, the state Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Health, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Initiated in 2003, a copy of the final plan can be viewed on the Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) by clicking on “Reports/Minutes” and then selecting “Pennsylvania CWD Response Plan.”

“We know that Pennsylvania hunters are just as concerned about keeping CWD out of Pennsylvania as we are, and we are confident that they will do all they can to protect the Commonwealth’s whitetail and elk populations,” Cottrell said.

Websites for all 50 state wildlife agencies can be accessed by going to www.wheretohunt.org, which is a website maintained by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Additional information on CWD can be found on the CWD Alliance’s website (www.cwd-info.org).