With wildlife managers throughout North America concerned about chronic wasting disease (CWD), the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in cooperation with the state Agriculture Department, is putting in place a massive monitoring effort to ensure that the disease is not present in the Commonwealth’s wild deer and elk.

“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.

This fall, the Game Commission will be collecting samples from a significant random number of hunter-killed deer from throughout the state to test for CWD. Deer will be checked at meat-processor shops by taking brain stem samples where agency employees gather additional data on deer.

In addition, the Game Commission will collect samples for CWD testing from all hunter-killed elk taken during the 2002 season, which is being held Nov. 18-23. Seventy hunters were awarded elk licenses, and any hunter who harvests an elk is required to bring the carcass to a check station so the agency can collect data and blood and tissue samples.

Since 1998, the Game Commission has tested more than 200 deer that have died of unknown illness or were exhibiting abnormal behavior. No evidence of CWD has been found in any of the more than 200 animals submitted to the state Department of Agriculture for testing.

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 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. 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. However, 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 are not to kill the animal.

“We’re counting on hunters to be our eyes when they head out to hunt deer this fall,” noted Bob Boyd, Bureau of Wildlife Management assistant director. “With the help of the hundreds of thousands of rifle deer hunters afield, we can cover a lot of ground.

“Hunters heading out for the upcoming season 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. To put the issue in context: we’ve been living with rabies – which does affect people – in Pennsylvania since the early 1980s.”

Hunters should only shoot animals that appear healthy and behave normally. They should always use rubber gloves for field dressing. These are simple precautions that hunters can follow to ensure their hunt remains a safe and pleasurable experience.

To learn more about CWD, visit the agency’s website at www.pgc.state.pa.us and click on “Hunting Information” and then select “Chronic Wasting Disease.”