The Pennsylvania Game Commission has banned the importation of live deer and elk in an effort to prevent the state’s wild and captive herds from becoming infected with fatal chronic wasting disease.
The ban, which begins tomorrow and will remain in effect indefinitely, will affect nearly 700 deer propagators and 90 elk propagators statewide, including one in Allegheny County.
“We are fortunate to be able to assure the public that we currently have no confirmed or suspected cases of [chronic wasting disease] in Pennsylvania’s wild or captive cervid herds, and we want to see it stay that way,” said Vern Ross, game commission executive director.
Signs that a cervid — all species of elk, deer, mule deer or moose — is infected 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 so far of the disease having any effect on humans or livestock.
The disease, first detected in Colorado in 1967, has spread to wild and captive elk, deer and mule deer in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Canada, and, earlier this year, Wisconsin.
“The one that put the fear of God in us was Wisconsin, where it’s been detected in the wild deer herd and no one knows how it got there,” said Jerry Feaser, a game commission spokesman. “It’s the first and so far only state east of the Mississippi River to have the disease show up.”
The commission estimates the state’s wild deer herd population is more than one million, and the wild elk herd is nearly 800.
There currently is no reliable way to test live animals for the disease nor is there a vaccine.
The Game Commission has no estimates of the number of deer or elk that are imported into Pennsylvania annually. But last fall two shipments of farmed elk from infected ranches in Colorado were brought into the state. The animals were located, killed and tested by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture.
“Fortunately, all of these high-risk animals tested negative for CWD,” Ross said. “However, this wake-up call demonstrated that Pennsylvania’s borders were wide open for the introduction of this disease, and the state’s farmed deer and elk industries, and wild deer and elk populations, could be placed at risk.”
Bill Duncan, a Butler County farmer who has raised elk for seven years and has 64 on his farm now, said the import ban will hurt the industry, which raises elk for hunting preserves, meat and the velvet antler trade, which uses ground-up antlers as a vitamin supplement in some nations.
Although Pennsylvania has a large wild deer population, deer are bred in captivity primarily to fill the demand for trophy bucks from private hunting preserves.
“We’re in favor of a tighter quarantine but we’re not in favor of totally shutting down the borders,” Duncan said. “Most of the states have monitoring programs now and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be publishing standards in September. I think it would have been better to have waited and had a uniform policy.”
Currently, about 20 other states, including New York, New Jersey, Texas, Vermont and Indiana, have implemented complete importation bans. In April, the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agency Directors endorsed an immediate moratorium on the importation of all live cervids into any northeastern state.
If the disease spreads into Pennsylvania it could have devastating effects on the state’s $4.8 billion hunting economy and 45,000 hunting — related jobs, Feaser said.
“We are taking note of what’s happening in Wisconsin, where hunting license sales have dropped,” Feaser said. “So they won’t have the hunter numbers out to contain the disease and will have to hire people to do it.”
Wisconsin is attempting to stop the spread of the disease by killing off thousands of deer.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum called a special session of the legislature in May to address the CWD outbreak, and the state will spend $4 million to test the killed deer this year. Wisconsin is also seeking $18.5 million in federal funding over the next three years for the disease control program.
While monitoring and testing of wild and captive elk herds started two years ago in Pennsylvania, there has been no testing of the wild or captive deer herds, even though deer are more susceptible to the disease.
CWD is a transmissible disease of the nervous system that is progressive and always fatal. Scientists theorize CWD is caused by an unknown agent capable of transforming normal brain proteins into an abnormal form.
Ross said the Game Commission worked with Penn State University veterinary officials to test for CWD and other diseases in the elk taken during the 2001 elk hunt and all test results were negative.
“For the coming elk hunting season, we will continue to test all elk taken by hunters,” Ross said, “and we will train our deer tagging teams who visit meat processors to collect a significant random sample from hunter-killed deer during the 2002 rifle deer season for CWD testing.”