HARRISBURG – Samples taken from the 35 hunter-killed elk during the state’s 2007 hunting season have all tested negative for chronic wasting disease (CWD), according to Dr. Walt Cottrell, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s wildlife veterinarian. Cottrell noted that the Game Commission still is awaiting the results of the 3,800 hunter-killed deer samples collected during the 2007 rifle deer season.
“Currently, there are no confirmed or suspected cases of CWD-infected deer or elk in Pennsylvania,” Cottrell said. “Conducting these tests on hunter-killed deer and elk will help to assure us and the general public that it is unlikely that CWD is present in wild deer and elk in the state.
“With CWD confirmed in New York and West Virginia, we obviously need to keep a watchful eye on our wild and captive deer and elk. Working closely with the state Department of Agriculture and other agency representatives on the state’s CWD Task Force, we hope to protect our state’s herds from this always-fatal disease.”
CWD tests on the elk samples were conducted by the New Bolton Center, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary diagnostics laboratory. Under a contract with Penn State University, the elk samples also were tested for brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis and found to be free from these diseases. The New Bolton Center is conducting the CWD tests on the deer samples. Results are expected in March or April.
“The test results are good news,” Cottrell said. “Although CWD has not been found in Pennsylvania, we must continue to be vigilant in our CWD monitoring efforts. The surveillance information we are gathering is important for the early detection of CWD, and we already are planning to continue random testing of hunter-killed deer and elk during the 2008-09 seasons.”
Cottrell added that, the Game Commission, with the assistance of the Pennsylvania and U.S. departments of Agriculture, has conducted tests on nearly 250 elk and more than 14,800 deer killed by hunters in Pennsylvania over the past six years. Since 1998, more than 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.
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. CWD is present in free-ranging wildlife or captive cervid populations in 14 states and two Canadian provinces.
There currently is no practical way to test live white-tails 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. Fortunately, there currently 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 incubation period for CWD is from 12 to 18 months, but animals may show clinical signs or demonstrate behavioral characteristics for two to five years. 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,” said Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “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.
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 version 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. Unfortunately, in spite of extensive efforts of education about the parts ban, there still are worrisome violations from all regions of the state.
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.
Additionally, the Game Commission conducted an emergency drill last March to test its preparedness to respond should CWD be identified within the state’s borders. The decision to hold the drill was a product of two meetings held in 2006 to review and update the state’s response plan, as well as the agency’s internal operational plan.
“Working through the drill enabled us to identify certain equipment, materials and contact information we needed to refine in order to improve our preparedness,” Roe said. “We also were able to better prepare for future meetings of the statewide CWD Task Force, and were able to share what we learned and what we believe needed to be addressed in the overall state response plan.”