In a Northampton County fire hall on a recent Sunday, tables groaned under the weight of gun parts and waterproof boots. An odor of musty canvas military gear locked horns with the latest in deer luring scents and assorted flavors of jerky. Visitors pawed through these offerings during the semi-annual gun show at the Mount Bethel Volunteer Fire Co. on Route 611. Similar gatherings in like settings can be found all over the country where hunters and target shooters trade talk and share stories of the three-point buck trophy head hanging on the den wall and the 10-pointer that got away. This year, talk also turned to a malady plaguing the Midwest and creeping eastward – the always fatal and poorly understood Chronic Wasting Disease. Though not suspected of spreading to humans, the disease does threaten deer, elk, moose and other antlered animals, known by their zoological classification as cervids. Similar to so-called Mad Cow Disease in Europe, Chronic Wasting Disease puts into peril the tradition of hunting these animals for food and sport. Ralph Fitzwater, a Monroe County resident who hunts throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, had a lot of questions about the disease during the Oct. 6 gun show. How is it transmitted? Can your dog get it? And above all, is venison safe to eat? “That’s the question more than anything else,” Fitzwater said from behind a table of mostly old military rifles. “Every time you go shoot a deer, must you have it tested?” Few hunters in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, where the early archery seasons are underway, pay much heed to the disease because it has not been found in either states’ deer or elk populations. In Wisconsin, however, fear of the disease has cut deer license sales by nearly 25 percent compared to last year. Should the same trend follow the disease eastward, Pennsylvania would lose some of its nearly 1.05 million hunters and New Jersey, its nearly 107,000 hunters, based on 2001 license sales in those states. The loss would hit both states hard in the pocketbook. In Pennsylvania, hunters contribute $4.8 billion a year to the economy and create more than 45,000 jobs. That’s according to a 1998 study by a state General Assembly committee. In New Jersey, deer hunting alone accounts for $219 million and 2,500 jobs, according to a 1996 nationwide study by Southwick Associates, an outdoor recreation economic analyst. To educate hunters on the disease, which is far from scaring off all hunters even where it has been found, state wildlife agencies have added links to their Web sites for information about Chronic Wasting Disease. Billboards are popping up, as are brochures and advertisements in catalogs, to urge deer hunting as a method to control the affliction. First found among captive mule deer in 1967 in northern Colorado, the disease has now been found in 10 states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. This year, Chronic Wasting Disease was found among wild deer in western Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin – the easternmost state to document the disorder. The most recent positive test came from a captive elk found in August in eastern Minnesota. It is unclear whether the discovery of more diseased deer and elk means the illness is spreading. Some experts say higher incidents of disease could be the result of a more aggressive search for Chronic Wasting Disease. “There’s going to be more samples taken from deer and elk and examined for CWD this hunting season than there has been cumulatively in the North American continent,” said Dr. Gary J. Wolfe, a wildlife biologist who is heading up the CWD Alliance of hunters’ conservation organizations. “The chances are that that’s going to lead to it being found more often,” Wolfe said from his office in Missoula, Mont. “That doesn’t mean that it’s rapidly spreading.” To keep the illness out of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, state officials this year banned importing live deer, elk and other cervids. Officials plan to test as many as 70 elk and 1,260 deer that hunters will kill during the states’ 2002-03 hunting seasons. “We currently have no known or suspected case of Chronic Wasting Disease in Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is committed to doing whatever it can to make sure it stays that way,” commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said. “Basically the best thing you can do as far as a start here is surveillance, so we’re keeping an eye out and doing testing,” said Al Ivany, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife. Ohio authorities are also monitoring deer herds for symptoms of the disease. In May they imposed a ban on importing deer and elk from Wisconsin. And just this summer, Ohio had a Chronic Wasting Disease scare when about 200 deer were found emaciated – some were dead – in the southeastern counties of that state. Tests showed they died of the more common deer illness epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which has symptoms – drooling, excessive weight loss and unconsciousness – similar to Chronic Wasting Disease. While no evidence exists that Chronic Wasting Disease can spread to humans, it is nevertheless seeping into hunters’ consciences – more so than deer-borne disorders that humans can get such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, anthrax and tapeworms. However, there’s no evidence sportsmen are canceling hunting trips in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. “Everybody’s concerned about it, but not to the extent that they’re changing their plans,” said John Kurpicki, who, along with his wife, Irene, has sold hunting and fishing gear at Hi-Way Sport Shop for 30 years in Washington Township, Warren County. “It would have to be a proven fact before anyone would change anything,” Jim Heebner, owner of The Owl’s Nest Gun and Bow in Pohatcong Township, said at the Upper Mount Bethel Township gun show. While Chronic Wasting Disease was recognized in the late 1960s, it was not until 1978 that researchers identified it as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease. BSE began making headlines in the mid-1990s because of “very strong evidence” the cattle disease causes a strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like Chronic Wasting Disease, BSE and CJD always kill their victims. As of June, 131 men and women died from the variant CJD linked to BSE, according to Dr. Douglas E. Roscoe, a research scientist in the New Jersey Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics. BSE has not been found in the United States, despite active surveillance efforts since May 1990, according to the CDC. “One of the reasons that we’ve read so much about CWD is because of the outbreak of the Mad Cow Disease in Europe,” said Wolfe, the wildlife biologist. “That Mad Cow can be transmitted to humans has raised concern that Chronic Wasting Disease can also be transmitted,” Wolfe said. However, research shows a “strong species boundary” between cervids and humans, Wolfe said. “As far as we know, CWD has never infected a human being,” he said. “What people find scary about CWD is it’s an unquantified risk. There’s no statistical chart that says, your chance of getting it are x, y and z.” As evidence that humans cannot contract Chronic Wasting Disease, Wolfe points to areas where the disease is present, but the number of cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is below the national average. “The occurrence of CJD in areas where CWD has been occurring is no different than in other parts of the country,” said Dr. Ermias Belay, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist. “Whatever data are available does not indicate that CWD is transmissible to humans.” However, Belay cautions: “That does not mean that it will never happen. We need to continue to monitor the situation, we need to continue surveillance, we need to investigate suspected cases, we need to keep our eyes open,” he said. Clinical signs an animal has Chronic Wasting Disease include weight loss, poor posture, lowered head and ears, uncoordinated movement, rough hair coat, increased thirst and excessive drooling, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. To that list, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adds listlessness, blank facial expression, grinding of the teeth and repetitive walking in set patterns. Researchers are unsure what causes Chronic Wasting Disease – whether it is an abnormal protein called a prion or a virus of some kind, according to the USDA. Nor are they sure how it spreads, except to say it is transmitted among adult cervids only. Testing for the disease is only done on dead animals. Microscopic examination of their brains reveals sponge- like holes, indicating late stages of the disease. However, special chemical stains of brain tissue in earlier stages show the infective agent’s presence, according to Roscoe. Wolfe said researchers are also developing a test of deer tonsils because the prion or virus accumulates there even before it does in the brain. The test is still being done postmortem and it does not work on elk, he said. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, state officials, universities and private companies such as GeneThera in Denver are working on tests than can detect the disease in live animals, Wolfe said. The infective agent has been found in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of cervids. This pattern of transmission and presence of the agent in the mouth and intestinal tract yielded a hypothesis the disease is spread through saliva, feces and urine, according to New Jersey’s Roscoe. In addition to deer and elk eating food contaminated by other cervids’ excretions, the disease might also spread through scavengers that feed on infected animals’ remains and pass the infective agent through their feces. Deer urine from captive deer sold as lures may also be a means of disseminating the disease. Because of that possibility, lure manufacturers such as Buck Stop Lure Co. Inc. of Stanton, Mich., are taking measures to keep their farms disease-free. “Our farm is a very tightly controlled situation, where all the deer are tested via the (U.S.) Department of Agriculture standards and Michigan Department of Natural Resources standards,” said Brian Johansen, a field staff adviser with Buck Stop. “And we have never had a report of Chronic Wasting Disease or tuberculosis on our farm,” he said. Buck Stop, which markets products such as Super Gland-U-Lure natural cover scent made with doe urine, does not import any deer onto its farm and keeps its stock quarantined from wild deer, Johansen said. Pennsylvania Sen. Lisa Boscola, a member of the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee, said she has heard proposals that would ban deer scents that contain urine. However, she said she wouldn’t back such a ban without evidence that urine does transmit the disease. Boscola, D-Lehigh/Northampton/Monroe said she does support Pennsylvania’s ban on importing cervids into the state. The Aug. 1 measure also provides for the testing of deer and elk during this year’s hunting seasons.
“The Game Commission has been proactive,” she said. “You have to begin to understand if it’s a problem and how big of a problem it is, and the only way you’re going to be able to accomplish that is by testing.” During the 2001-02 season, Pennsylvania tested 27 elk that hunters killed and random deer that residents reported as looking sickly. This year, the state allotted 70 elk licenses and will test all those killed, as well as up to 500 deer collected from deer processors across the state, according to Feaser, the Game Commission spokesman. Feaser said a “conservative” cost estimate for the tests, which are done by an outside laboratory, is $45 to $75 per animal plus the cost of state personnel salaries and costs to ship the sample. Funding for fighting Chronic Wasting Disease comes partly from the federal government, which allocated $12 million in February for states. The USDA has proposed $15 million for the 2003 fiscal year but Congress has yet to pass the budget, department spokesman Ed Curlett said. Nick Sabatine, a Northampton County councilman and Republican candidate running this fall against Boscola for the 18th State Senatorial District, said testing for the disease is well worth the cost. “It seems to me that Pennsylvania is probably the most heavily hunted state in the country when it comes to white-tailed deer,” said Sabatine, a hunter for nearly 40 years. “I know that we bring in a tremendous number of dollars from tourists with regard to deer hunting. “From the standpoint of preserving our wildlife, we clearly have to prevent this disease from entering Pennsylvania,” he said. Sabatine called Pennsylvania’s steps to keep the disease outside its borders “prudent” and “reasonable.”
New Jersey plans to test 760 deer on the first day of all three firearm hunting seasons, according to Ivany, that state’s fish and wildlife spokesman. During the 1997-98 season, the state tested about 500 deer for both tuberculosis and Chronic Wasting Disease without finding any infected animals, he said. New Jersey’s ban on importing live elk and deer took effect in June. Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey prohibit hunters from bringing their kills home from other states. The goal of surveillance for the disease and preventive measures is to keep it out of the state and avoid the situation now facing Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Colorado, for example, an infected deer or elk means killing and testing all cervids within a five-miles radius, according to Dawn Taylor, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources. So far this year, Colorado has examined more than 3,000 of 8,500 animals killed by hunters or state employees, she said. Officials in Wisconsin, where the disease was found in February, plan to kill 25,000 deer in a 389-square mile area this fall and winter to stop the spread of the disease. To promote hunting in Wisconsin and across the nation as a means of controlling Chronic Wasting Disease, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is erecting billboards with the theme, “Fight CWD, Hunt Deer.” Whitetails Unlimited , based in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., is erecting similar billboards. The same theme will also appear on brochures circulated by Safari Club International, based in Tucson, Ariz., and in ads inside Minnesota-based Gander Mountain outdoor gear catalogs. As of early October, The Associated Press reported a drop in Wisconsin license sales of 22 percent compared to the same time last year. Not all states with the disease are seeing the same drop. “We actually sold more leftover hunting licenses this year than we ever had,” said Taylor, from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Hunters are concerned about CWD and understand it as much as any of us who work in the industry. They know what the dangers are. They know what we’re up against.” Some hunters out west will find their way there through Meyers Gun Shop in Moore Township, where owner John Meyers organizes hunting trips to Wyoming and Canada. He said he has seen no drop in reservations because of the disease, which has not surfaced in areas his customers hunt. “We’re almost booked already for next year,” said Meyers, who sets up 15 to 20 trips a year. “Now it could change. I mean, you never know.” He said customers would get their money back if the disease is found where he sends hunters. Wolfe, the biologist from Montana, said he has hunted in an area of Colorado where the disease has been present for 15 years and he plans to hunt there again this year. “I personally am not concerned about contracting CWD because the information to date indicates it is not transmissible to humans and the infective agent seems to be limited to the spleen, lymph glands, spinal cord and brain,” he said. Wolfe plans to choose his target carefully, by avoiding any sickly looking animal, as well as taking precautions in preparing the meat for eating – including having it tested for the disease. Such tests are not yet available for private citizens in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Wolfe hedged a bit when asked if he would eat venison from a deer confirmed to have the disease – a practice the World Health Organization warns against. “I wouldn’t feed it to friends,” he said. “But whether my wife and I would choose to eat it, that would be something we’d just have to discuss.”