HARRISBURG – While there continues to be no known cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, joined by veterinarians and laboratory technicians from the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of Agriculture, is stepping up its efforts next week to verify that fact.

“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,” said Vern Ross, Game Commission executive director. “We are planning to collect samples from 4,000 hunter-killed deer to test for CWD. Last year, we tested samples from 3,699 deer, all of which were negative for CWD.”

Game Commission deer aging teams will collect 4,000 deer heads randomly throughout the state beginning Nov. 29 – the second day of the state’s two-week concurrent rifle deer season. The heads will be taken to the six Game Commission Region Offices, where samples will be collected for testing.

The CWD tests on deer samples will be conducted at the New Bolton Center, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory. Results are expected in 2006.

The Game Commission collected blood samples from the 35 hunter-killed elk during the elk season (Nov. 7-12). The Game Commission also collected brain and tissue samples from roughly 25 of the elk, and anticipates that the remaining samples will be submitted by taxidermists for those elk hunters planning to have their trophies mounted.

The elk samples will be tested for CWD at the New Bolton Center. Under a contract with Penn State University, the samples also will be tested for bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Bob Boyd, assistant director of the Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the agency will release the elk and deer test results as soon as they are available.

Since 1998, the Game Commission has tested about 400 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior. No evidence of CWD has been found in any of the animals submitted to the state Department of Agriculture for testing.

CWD testing of healthy appearing hunter-killed deer or elk is available through the New Bolton Center. Hunters who wish to have their deer tested may do so for a fee by making arrangements with the New Bolton Center Laboratory (610-444-5800).

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,” Ross 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 state Department of Agriculture, with the support of the Game Commission, issued an order to ban the importation of specific carcass parts from states and Canadian provinces that have a history of CWD in free-ranging deer populations, with one exception,” Ross said. “States named in the order are: Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Parts are banned only from Hampshire County in West Virginia, where four deer recently have tested positive for CWD.”

Also, Ross noted that since New York officials have imposed a ban on removing specific carcass parts from a specified containment area in New York, Pennsylvania has not included New York on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s importation ban, which took effect Oct. 1.

Specific carcass parts listed in the Department of Agriculture’s order as being prohibited from being brought back to 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; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.

Ross noted that the order does not limit the importation of the following animal parts originating from any hunter-harvested cervid in the quarantined states 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 finished taxidermy mounts.

In October, the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners gave final approval to a measure granting certain emergency authorities to the executive director to prevent the spread of CWD, if it is discovered in or near the state or poses a serious threat to the Commonwealth’s deer and elk populations. The new regulation, among other things, grants the executive director the authority to ban the importation of specific deer or elk parts.

“Once the Board-approved regulatory change takes effect, I expect to implement the ban on importing certain deer and elk parts as soon as possible to mirror the Department of Agriculture’s action,” Ross said.

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.