HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Vernon R. Ross today offered testimony before a joint Senate Game and Fisheries Committee and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee information hearing on the efforts being made to prevent chronic wasting disease from entering the Commonwealth.

Others offering testimony included state Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff and Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs Executive Director Melody Zullinger.

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 of the nervous system. Scientists theorize CWD 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, nor is there a vaccine. 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 currently no scientific evidence that CWD has or can spread to humans, either through contact with infected animals or by eating meat of infected animals. The Center for Disease Control has thoroughly investigated any connection between CWD and the human forms of TSEs and stated “the risk of infection with the CWD agent among hunters is extremely small, if it exists at all” and “it is extremely unlikely that CWD would be a food borne hazard.”

Following is Ross’ statement:

“The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a deep interest in chronic wasting disease (CWD) and its possible impact on wild and captive deer and elk populations in the state. Thankfully, at this time, Pennsylvania has not detected CWD here. This disease has the potential to have a significant negative impact on our natural wildlife community for hunters and wildlife viewers, as well as the state’s deer and elk farming industry.

“Of Pennsylvania’s one million hunters, more than 930,000 buy a license to deer hunt. According to a 1998 Center for Rural PA study, hunting supports some 45,000 jobs statewide and results in a $ 4.8 billion dollar impact on the state’s economy. Yes, deer hunting is big business. It also is a healthy, wholesome activity steeped in heritage.

“Also, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report issued in 2001, slightly more than one million Pennsylvania residents and more than 300,000 nonresidents spent days afield away from home specifically to observe and photograph wildlife in our state. Birds were on top of the list for these wildlife enthusiasts, but mammals — especially deer and elk — were a close second. While it is difficult to quantify precisely the economic impact of these recreational activities focused on wildlife, clearly tens of millions of dollars are being spent annually by residents and nonresidents to view deer and elk.

“Threats to hunting, wildlife watching and the economic benefits of these two activities and consequences on our hunting traditions must be taken seriously.

“As we all now know, CWD is specific to members of the deer family, and it is a disease of increasing concern for wildlife managers throughout North America.

“In 1998, the Game Commission, in cooperation with the state Department of Agriculture, began gathering and testing samples from deer that died from unknown illnesses to determine whether CWD might be the cause. Nearly 400 suspect animals have been tested since that time.

“To step up our efforts, in 2001, the Game Commission began to collect samples from hunter-killed elk in Pennsylvania. In 2002, we expanded this to begin collecting a random sample of hunter-killed deer throughout the state. So far, in partnership with the state Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture, we have conducted tests on 162 elk and 6,259 deer. This coming season, we plan to test all hunter-killed Pennsylvania elk and to collect samples from 4,000 hunter-killed Pennsylvania deer.

“Our annual budget for conducting these tests is about $135,000, of which, $90,000 are federal funds provided to the state as we are a “Level 2” state. Level 2 means that we do not have CWD in our state, but we have a neighboring state – in our specific case, two neighboring states – with CWD. The availability of these federal funds may be reduced if more states are determined to be CWD-positive.

“In February of 2002, Wisconsin confirmed it had found CWD inside its borders from deer taken during the November 2001 hunt. This announcement made Wisconsin the first state east of the Mississippi River to become CWD positive in its wild, free-ranging deer population.

“In June of 2002, I requested that the Governor’s Office convene a special task force to proactively address this important wildlife health issue. On August 1, 2002, I used my emergency authority to issue a temporary ban on the importation of all live deer and elk into the state. This ban remained in effect until early 2003, at which time the Board of Game Commissioners gave final adoption to a series of regulatory changes that established specific criteria by which elk and deer could be imported while continuing to reduce the likelihood that CWD might enter the state.

“Finally, a CWD task force, of which the Game Commission was a member, began to meet in November of 2002. The work of this task force resulted in a final CWD response plan this summer that focuses on ways to prevent CWD from entering the Commonwealth and to ensure early detection should CWD enter the state. The plan also lays out a comprehensive response plan to contain and attempt to eradicate CWD should it be found within the state.

“Last month, the state Department of Agriculture 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. 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. 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 on Oct. 1.

“The Agriculture Department’s action, which the Game Commission supported, was taken in advance of the big game seasons of other states in which many Pennsylvania hunters participate. Due to the nature of our agency’s regulatory process, we were unable to implement a new regulation to accomplish this same objective, so – working with the Department of Agriculture – Pennsylvania was able to implement this added layer of protection in advance of the big game seasons. I would like to personally offer my thanks to Governor Rendell and Secretary Wolff for taking this action.

“Additionally, the Rendell Administration announced, last month, that it would begin a mandatory CWD monitoring program for all those involved in the deer and elk farming industry, as well as those who possess elk and deer as pets. To put this in context, I’d like to note that we have 751 permitted deer propagators, 22 elk propagators and 53 propagators with both deer and elk throughout the state. These figures do not include the number of private citizens who have purchased deer or elk and have erected fences to keep the animals as pets in their backyard.

“To accomplish this massive task, we urge the General Assembly to provide the Department of Agriculture adequate funding to accomplish this undertaking.

“Also, education and outreach are two important activities at this time.

“The Game Commission, in partnership with the CWD task force members has developed a section on our website dedicated to CWD, which is similar to the content of the brochure that we provided to each committee member.

“We’ve issued news releases urging our hunters heading out of state to be cautious about bringing high-risk body parts back to Pennsylvania, even if they are hunting in states that are not positive for CWD.

“We have included information on CWD in our annual hunting and trapping digest, and plan to expand this section in future editions.

“We have included articles in our monthly magazine, Pennsylvania Game News. As part of my handouts are an editorial from the November issue and news articles from the November and December issue.

“And we have partnered with CWD task force members on mailings to taxidermists and are planning a mailing to known deer meat processors before the 2005-06 rifle deer season.

“Also, on Friday, we received confirmation from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources that they are providing information to their game check stations and license issuing agents regarding the importation ban that Pennsylvania has put in place impacting Pennsylvania hunters in Hampshire County. The notice and a phone number to the Pennsylvania Game Commission Bureau of Information and Education also is being provided to Pennsylvania hunters applying for a West Virginia hunting license online.

“Today’s hearing certainly will help in elevating this issue in the public arena, and I offer my thanks to the Senate for this opportunity.

“In closing, I’d like to quote from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website, copies of which are attached to my statement. This quote is regarding the long-term commitment that the state must make to contain CWD: ‘Commitment from the general public and legislature will be critical to bolster the $20 million (largely from hunting fees) spent in Wisconsin since 2002 on CWD surveillance, management and eradication efforts. We believe the average $5 million spent annually on CWD management is a sound investment to protect the health of our deer herd, given deer hunting’s nearly $1 billion impact on the state’s economy and its value as prized recreation.’

“Resources of this magnitude certainly aren’t readily available in our budget or our reserve account, and we recognize the limitations of the state’s current General Fund budget. However, I believe we all agree that it would be far more beneficial to do what we can to keep CWD out of Pennsylvania than to try to respond to it once it gets here.”