HARRISBURG – Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was not detected in samples taken from hunter-killed deer during the state’s 2005 hunting season, according to Dr. Walt Cottrell, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife veterinarian.

As CWD has been identified in New York and West Virginia in 2005, Cottrell noted that the agency continues to increase the number of deer samples collected for testing. In 2005, 3,834 samples were tested from hunter-killed deer, and CWD was not detected. In 2004, 3,613 hunter-killed deer samples were tested, compared to the 2,004 deer sampled in 2003, and 558 in 2002. CWD was not detected in previous year’s samples.

Results showing that the CWD tests of hunter-killed elk from 2005 were all negative and were announced on Jan. 23.

“We are pleased to announce that Pennsylvania continues to have no confirmed or suspected cases of wild deer or elk with CWD in Pennsylvania, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that it stays that way,” Cottrell said. “By conducting these tests from a random sample of hunter-killed deer and on all hunter-killed 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 deer and 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 of those diseases.

All costs for conducting these tests are covered by a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal grant pays for all testing, materials and supplies, and some of the agency’s personnel costs for sample collection.

Heads from hunter-killed deer were collected from deer processors by deer aging teams during the two-week rifle deer season. Tissues were collected at Game Commission region offices by Game Commission personnel and Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of agriculture animal health officials. This marked the fifth year for testing hunter-killed elk and the fourth year for testing hunter-killed deer. In total, 196 elk and nearly 10,010 deer have been tested.

“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.

“We already are planning to continue random testing of hunter-killed deer and elk during the 2006-07 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.”

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 emaciated and their hair has a very disheveled appearance. Drooling is sometimes apparent. Deer often are found near water, which some consume in large amounts. They also may use an exaggerated wide stance 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 always should be mindful of wildlife health issues, but even more so in coming 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.”

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.

In December, 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, Kansas, 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).