Pa. agency: Whitetail disease not widespread

A deer killed in November in Bedford County that tested positive for chronic wasting disease should not deter anyone from participating in late-season deer hunting, according to the state Game Commission.

First discovered in Colorado in 1967, chronic wasting disease affects the brains of deer, elk and moose, resulting in death. Since that first case, it has spread to more than 15 states, including New York, West Virginia and Maryland.

The disease eventually spread to Pennsylvania and first was detected in the state in October 2012, following the deaths of two captive deer on a farm in Adams County. In that same year, three free-ranging deer tested positive for the disease as well. Two came from Blair County and the other from Bedford County.

In response, the Game Commission established two disease management areas in southcentral Pennsylvania to help contain and understand the spread of the disease, whether it is localized or widespread.

How the disease made it to Pennsylvania still is unknown, according to Tony Ross, a biologist with the Northcentral Region office of the Game Commission.

“Where it came from is still a big issue,” Ross said. “Did it progress northward from Maryland? I don’t know. But, we are not taking this lightly.”

The latest case of chronic wasting disease occurred between the two management areas, so there is no concern that it is spreading across the state, according to the Game Commission.

The deer was the first to be tested positive for the disease in 2013 though not all samples collected throughout last year have been tested. About 2,000 samples are taken across both disease management areas per year. All those samples come from hunter-harvested deer and are tested by the Game Commission.

The state Department of Agriculture tests captive deer, taking about 3,000 samples each year.

If a deer outside the two management areas tests positive for the disease, the Game Commission will be more aggressive in its testing and sampling.

“If the disease is found in a new location, we will turn the surrounding 10 square miles into a disease management area, just like we did before,” Ross said.

Chronic wasting disease spreads from one deer to another directly and indirectly, through infected soil from a dead deer or through fluids, such as saliva or blood.

Certain plants can carry the disease as well, so if a herd of deer is using the same food source, there is a higher risk of the disease spreading, Ross said.

Though there is no evidence to suggest that the disease can be transferred to humans, the Game Commission recommends not eating the meat from an infected deer and to not shoot or handle any animal exhibiting symptoms of the disease, which are emaciation, excess saliva, a blank stare and a hunched-over posture or walking in circles.

“But those symptoms aren’t necessarily unique to chronic wasting disease,” Ross said. “That’s why we test every dead deer we can get ahold of.”

He expects more results from samples taken last year to arrive within a month but stressed that if more cases of the disease are discovered, the Game Commission has a plan to manage the issue.

“We know what we’ll do if we find another case of the disease,” Ross said. “And we know who we will call and how quickly we’ll need to set up new stations for sample collecting.”