When a deer or other animal from the Cervidae family gets chronic wasting disease, it will die. There’s no vaccine to prevent infection and no cure for an animal that has it.
White-tailed and other types of deer, elk and moose are all at risk in North America of getting CWD. In Pennsylvania, 58 cases have been found since 2012, prompting game officials to establish disease management areas in places with positive CWD tests.
Centre County hasn’t had any positive tests, but the nearby counties of Clearfield and Blair both have DMAs in place.
In July, officials euthanized an adult buck in Clearfield County that appeared sick. It eventually tested positive for CWD.
Cervids will begin to show signs of infection about a year after exposure to the prion disease, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Other TSEs can be found in bovines. It’s commonly known as mad cow. The human diseases Cruetzfeldt-Jakob and variant Cruetzfeldt-Jakob are both TSEs.
These are all fatal, degenerative diseases that affect the brain, spinal cord and other tissues, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
After the first year or so, infected animals will begin to experience drastic weight loss, which gives chronic wasting disease it’s common name; stumbling and lack of coordination; listlessness; drooling; excessive thirst or urination; drooping ears; and a lack of fear, or even aggression. toward people.
This can commonly be confused with simple malnutrition, or even other wildlife-related diseases. The only way to know if an animal has CWD is to test its carcass.
Eventually the animal will “waste away” out in the wild, which is a problem, as that’s how it can spread laterally from animal to animal. Prions are surprisingly resilient in a range of environments and can linger around on the animal or in dirt and can be picked up through grazing, according to studies.
Epidemiologists first identified chronic wasting disease as a TSE in 1978, though there are reports of a closed herd of mule deer in Colorado in 1967 with CWD, according to the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. It was first identified in the wild in 1981 in Colorado and Wyoming.
The disease then made big waves in the Midwest and East through the 2000s, spreading to Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Kansas and other states, according to the USGS.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission said it first noted CWD in Adams County on a closed farm in 2012. It’s now been found in wild deer.
To attempt to control the disease, the PGC is working with other state and federal departments on surveillance, testing and management of the DMAs.
This year, officials also are embarking on a public information campaign with meetings to be held throughout late September and early October, though none of them are slated for Centre County.
The PGC also is placing strict rules on the movement of deer parts, and advising hunters to take precautions when handling or consuming deer.
Sean Nolan, an avid hunter from College Township, said he hunts in Ohio and nearby Clearfield County. He said Western hunters are far more aware of CWD, since it’s been an issue in the Western states for longer.
“The herds out there were a lot larger” before CWD, Nolan said.
Pennsylvania recently began banning the importation of certain deer parts for fear of spreading the disease, so Nolan said that’s made it harder for processing the deer. They have to have all of their materials in Ohio to just harvest the meat since they can’t bring the carcass back.
Nolan said he isn’t concerned so much about handling a potentially sick animal, but CWD does worry him regarding deer populations. This goes hand in hand with his greater concern over the number of tags distributed to hunters each year, he said, as he’s seen a drastic decline in population since he began hunting nearly 40 years ago. He said he doesn’t plan on having a harvested deer tested if it’s not visibly sick.
As of now, scientists are saying they don’t believe humans can get CWD, but the CDC still says people shouldn’t eat deer that have tested positive.
Positive CWD tests have popped up in Blair, Cambria, Franklin and Fulton counties, which comprise DMA 2.
Captive deer in Jefferson County tested positive in 2014 and free-range deer in Clearfield County just this year tested positive. These two counties are considered to be in DMA 3.
The CWD-infected deer in Clearfield County got wide attention after the announcement by the Game Commission on July 12. A commission officer shot the deer July 7 on State Game Lands 83 after it showed suspicious signs of being infected.
DMA 1 was set up in Adams County in 2012 and has since been eliminated after 4,800 tests on wild deer there came up negative.
Officials are limiting the transportation of “high-risk carcass parts” into and out of the state and the DMAs. These include the brain, tonsils, eyes, lymph nodes, spinal cord, skull plate with antlers with brain matter attached, teeth attached to soft tissue and brain-tanned hide.
Hunters can move the following parts into and within Pennsylvania: meat with no part of the spinal column or head attached, cleaned hides without the head, and skull plates and antlers with brain matter removed.
PGC is offering free testing for any deer harvested in a DMA this year. Heads can be deposited in a CWD collection container with harvest tags attached. Deer also can be taken to processors within DMAs.
A 56-year-old Ridgway man got a sense of how serious PGC officials are about controlling CWD. He pleaded guilty in August to two counts of disturbing wildlife after admitting he handled two tagged deer that were later euthanized. PGC said its policy is to kill deer with tags commonly seen on captive deer in order to stop the spread of disease to wild populations.
On Aug. 18, the PGC said it had euthanized an elk that wandered south of Interstate 80 from the Elk Management Area and into DMA 3. It was feared the elk could pick up CWD there and take it back to the elk population during the upcoming mating season.
There were 25 reported cases in 2016 in Pennsylvania and 10 so far in 2017.