HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Game Commission officials are in the midst of a full-blown emergency situation involving suspected cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in seven areas of the state! Of course, it isn’t real; it is a series of simulation exercises to test the Game Commission’s emergency preparedness to review the effectiveness of the agency’s CWD response plan.

On Nov. 11, Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe announced that the agency would conduct a CWD-response drill in the first quarter of 2007. The decision to hold the drill was a product of two meetings to review and update the state’s response plan, as well as the agency’s internal operational plan.

“Currently, there are no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD-infected deer or elk in Pennsylvania, and this is one more thing we are doing to ensure that it stays that way,” Roe said. “However, with CWD being uncovered in two neighboring states – New York and West Virginia – we must continue to plan and act as if it is a matter of not ‘if CWD is found,’ but rather ‘when CWD is found’ in Pennsylvania.

“We will remain vigilant in our efforts to search statewide for signs and evidence of CWD, and continue to prepare the state’s coordinated response for discovery of the disease. As the state’s wildlife management agency, we have a statutory responsibility to protect the Commonwealth’s deer, elk and other wildlife. It is a responsibility the Game Commission has shouldered for more than 100 years.”

On Monday evening, Feb. 19, Dr. Walter Cottrell, Game Commission wildlife veterinarian, and Calvin W. DuBrock, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management director, called agency staff on the CWD response team to start the drill.

“Dr. Cottrell and Mr. DuBrock told staff to report to their offices for a meeting Tuesday morning to begin to review prepared scenarios,” Roe said. “To more fully evaluate our preparedness, we developed different scenarios for each of the six region offices and the Harrisburg headquarters. Each scenario had a different set of facts, variables and challenges that staff has to work through.”

Roe noted that the agency’s CWD response team will meet in State College on Feb. 27 to review its actions and decisions, and then consider modifications to improve the agency response plan. Recommendations to modify the state’s CWD Response Plan also will be compiled.

First identified in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects cervids, including all species of deer, elk and moose. It is a progressive and always fatal disease, which scientists theorize is caused by an 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. 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. The usual incubation period for CWD is around 15 months. Commonly observed signs of an infected animal include lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough-hair coat, weight loss, increased thirst, excessive drooling, and, ultimately, death.

CWD is present in free-ranging or 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 September of 2005, in order to prepare for a possible CWD occurrence, Gov. Edward G. Rendell and agency representatives of the Pennsylvania CWD task force finalized and signed the state’s response plan, which outlines ways to prevent CWD from entering the state’s borders and, if CWD is in Pennsylvania, how to detect, contain 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. Also, representatives of important stakeholder groups – including hunters, deer and elk farmers, meat processors and taxidermists – helped shape the final draft of the plan. 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.”

The Game Commission, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of Agriculture, has conducted tests on nearly 200 elk and more than 10,000 deer killed by hunters in Pennsylvania over the past five and four years, respectively. Since 1998, nearly 500 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior also have been tested. No evidence of CWD has been found in these samples. The Game Commission will continue to monitor for and collect samples from deer and elk that appear sick or behave abnormally.

The agency is awaiting results from the hunter-killed deer and elk from the 2006 seasons.

To learn more about CWD, visit the agency’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) and click on the “CWD Update” section in the “Quick Clicks” box in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.

Created in 1895 as an independent state agency, the Game Commission is responsible for conserving and managing all wild birds and mammals in the Commonwealth, establishing hunting seasons and bag limits, enforcing hunting and trapping laws, and managing habitat on the 1.4 million acres of State Game Lands it has purchased over the years with hunting and furtaking license dollars to safeguard wildlife habitat. The agency also conducts numerous wildlife conservation programs for schools, civic organizations and sportsmen’s clubs.

The Game Commission does not receive any general state taxpayer dollars for its annual operating budget. The agency is funded by license sales revenues; the state’s share of the federal Pittman-Robertson program, which is an excise tax collected through the sale of sporting arms and ammunition; and monies from the sale of oil, gas, coal, timber and minerals derived from State Game Lands.