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 Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “We are planning to collect samples from 4,000 hunter-killed deer to test for CWD in the upcoming firearms deer season. Last year, we tested samples from more than 3,800 deer. CWD was not detected in any of the samples.”

Game Commission deer aging teams will collect deer heads randomly throughout the state beginning Nov. 28 – 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 these deer samples will be conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory at the New Bolton Center in Chester County. Results are expected in 2007.

The Game Commission collected liver, lung and blood samples from all 35 hunter-killed elk during the two elk seasons held in September and November. The Game Commission also collected brain tissue and lymph node samples from 17 of the elk, and requested that taxidermists submit the remaining brain tissue and lymph node samples from elk provided by hunters seeking to have their trophies mounted. The agency provided elk hunters with pre-paid mailers for taxidermists to submit the samples.

All elk samples also 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. With funding from the state Department of Agriculture, the Game Commission and Penn State are examining liver samples for nutritional mineral and heavy metal content, as elk frequently graze on reclaimed strip mines.

Dr. Walter Cottrell, Game Commission wildlife veterinarian, said the agency will release the elk and deer test results as soon as they are available.

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.

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, 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.

Hunters who see deer behaving oddly, that appear to be sick, or that are dying for unknown reasons are urged to contact the nearest Game Commission Region Office. Hunters should not kill or consume animals that appear to be sick.

“We count on hunters to be our eyes when they head out to hunt deer,” Roe 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 1960s.”

Not only should hunters shoot only deer that appear to be healthy and behave normally, but the Game Commission also recommends 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 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.”

In December of 2005, recognizing the transmissible nature of the disease, 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. Hunters traveling to the following states must abide by the importation restrictions: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York (CWD containment area only), South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia (Hampshire County only), Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Specific carcass parts prohibited from being imported into Pennsylvania by hunters are: head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and 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.

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.

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.

Game Commission to Conduct CWD Response Drill

To better prepare should chronic wasting disease (CWD) be identified in the state, Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe has planned a CWD-response drill in the first quarter of 2007, for the agency to test its CWD response plan and preparedness. The decision to hold the drill was a product of two recently held meetings to review and update the state’s response plan, as well as the agency’s internal operational plan.

On Aug. 2, the Game Commission hosted a CWD “tabletop exercise” that involved representatives from seven state and federal agencies to review Pennsylvania’s CWD Response Plan. Bryan Richards, U.S. Geological Survey CWD Project Leader, spoke about the current knowledge of CWD and, in particular, news about prion behavior. He also emphasized the importance and implications of environmental contamination as it relates to disease prevalence, the state of knowledge of the various species barriers because they influence the potential for CWD prions to become a human pathogen, and experiences of several states in managing CWD.

During this meeting, Bob Boyd, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management assistant director, and Dr. Walter Cottrell, Game Commission wildlife veterinarian, reviewed the Pennsylvania Interagency CWD Response Plan and the Game Commission’s CWD Operational Plan.

“As part of the exercise, Bryan Richards presented scenarios and then moderated informal discussion of possible responses,” Dr. Cottrell said. “He built these scenarios to include discovery of CWD in both wild and captive settings in different parts of Pennsylvania.

“He also injected different constraints to our possible responses, including one scenario that involved National Park properties where NEPA compliance would be needed before response, and adverse public reaction.”

As a follow up to the interagency meeting, on Oct. 25, the Game Commission CWD task force reviewed the results of the tabletop exercise and prepared recommendations on updates to the State Response Plan, as well as the Game Commission’s Operational Plan based on the latest available information.

“At this meeting in October, Executive Director Roe determined, along with the support of the rest of the task force, that the Game Commission should schedule an exercise to practice role-playing in response to a mock CWD suspect case just within the Game Commission,” Dr. Cottrell said.

Roe made it clear that Game Commission personnel are taking the CWD threat to Pennsylvania’s wildlife seriously, and are doing everything possible within current funding levels to monitor for the disease and be prepared to respond should it be found within the state.

“With CWD being uncovered in two neighboring states, 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,” Roe said. “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 and other wildlife. It is a responsibility the Game Commission has shouldered for more than 100 years.”

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.