It's no secret that white-tailed deer are Pennsylvania's most valuable wildlife resource. Just ask any of the nearly 750,000 deer hunters who will take to the field on Monday.
That's why when the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which regulates the state's deer farming industry, recently announced that two deer had died of chronic wasting disease on an Adams County deer farm, the state's CWD Interagency Task Force immediately addressed the threat to captive and wild deer and elk populations in the state.
CWD is a fatal disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord of members of the deer family. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there is no evidence that humans or livestock can get the disease.
While the exact cause of CWD is unknown, it is believed to be related to "prions," altered proteins that cause other normal proteins to change and cause sponge-like holes in the brain. The origin of prions is unknown. CWD was first identified in 1967 in Colorado and has since been found in more than 20 states and Canadian provinces.
The good news is that the two cases in Pennsylvania were found on a single deer farm in Adams County. The bad news is that CWD has already been found in wild deer populations in Maryland and West Virginia.
According to a state Agriculture Department news release, more than 23,000 captive deer live on 1,100 breeding farms, hobby farms and shooting preserves around the state. Despite surveillance for CWD by the Game Commission that includes more than 38,000 samples since 1998, some biologists fear it's just a matter of time until CWD finds its way into wild deer in Pennsylvania.
As the disease progresses, individuals infected with CWD show symptoms such as weight loss, excessive drooling, increased drinking and urination, listlessness, stumbling, trembling, loss of fear of humans, nervousness and ultimately death. CWD appears to be passed between animals via saliva, feces or urine. CWD may be transmitted more readily within overpopulated herds and at feeding stations where direct physical contact among individuals is more likely. This is another reason to avoid feeding deer in winter.
During the upcoming two-week rifle deer season, the Game Commission requires mandatory harvest samples in the affected area and recommends sampling of hunter-killed deer statewide. The cooperation of hunters is essential for this monitoring program to be successful.
For more information about CWD, a 40-minute video featuring Game Commission wildlife veterinarian Walter Cottrell has been posted at www.pgc.state.pa.us. Click on the "CWD Info" icon and scroll to the imbedded viewer.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling) and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.