First case of a fatal wildlife disease found in Pa.

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The presence of disease fatal to deer, elk and moose was confirmed for the first time in Pennsylvania on Thursday, triggering the initial stages of a planned response among state and federal agencies.

Chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder, was detected in a white-tailed deer at a commercial deer farm in south-central Adams County during routine screening by the state Department of Agriculture.

With the statewide archery deer season under way and firearm deer season opening Nov. 26, the state Game Commission noted that chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has not been detected in wild deer in Pennsylvania. Tests of some 38,000 free-ranging deer and elk conducted since 1998 have proven negative.

At a press briefing Thursday in Harrisburg, state Agriculture Department Secretary George Greig said there is no evidence CWD can be transmitted to humans, but he suggested reasonable precautions should be taken to avoid exposure.

"The Centers for Disease Control recommend that people do not consume, distribute or donate contaminated meat," he said.

CWD is progressive and always fatal, impacting the infected animal's brain and nervous system. It is believed to occur when an unknown agent converts normal brain proteins into an abnormal form. It spreads through the direct transfer of body fluids or through contaminated soil. There is no known treatment.

Symptoms include weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, and abnormal behaviors such as stumbling, trembling and absence of fear of humans. Although similar to the symptoms of epizootic hemorrhagic disease -- which has been confirmed this year in Allegheny, Beaver, Westmoreland and Montgomery counties, and suspected in Cambria and Crawford counties -- the diseases are not related.

CWD was previously confirmed in wild deer in New York, West Virginia and Maryland and has been tracked slowly encroaching on Pennsylvania. Last year the Game Commission drafted a multiagency CWD response plan and recruited a task force including members of its staff and the state departments of Agriculture, Environmental Protection and Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Pennsylvania has an aggressive chronic wasting disease surveillance program and a strong response plan," Mr. Greig said. "Steps are being taken to prevent further spread of this disease to the state's captive and wild deer populations."

Quarantines were imposed on the game farm at 1491 New Chester Road, New Oxford, as well as two farms with direct contacts near Williamsport, Lycoming County, and Dover, York County.

Craig Shultz, director of the Bureau of Animal Health and Diagnostic Services at the state Department of Agriculture, said it was too soon to know if the sale of commercial venison will be curbed, but spread of the disease could have economic impacts on activities related to deer and to farms that supply venison.

"All of these could be very negatively impacted if we don't take reasonable steps to control this disease," he said.

The initial impact on hunters has yet to be determined. Randy Santucci of Robinson, president of Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, said stringent actions should be taken to prevent CWD from spreading to wild populations.

"Maybe a buffer area around the farms, or culling deer to prevent something that could be so devastating to the deer herd," he said. "We should look at other states that have taken measures to see what worked."

Steve Richter, director of conservation for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, where CWD appeared in 2002, said it's good that Pennsylvania officials had a plan in place to address chronic wasting disease.

"One of the first things they'll probably do is have a discussion about shutting down that [deer] farm," he said. "They'll want to place a zone around [it] and be checking every deer harvested there through archery and gun seasons."

When CWD was detected in Wisconsin, initially in the wild, the state departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources "really did their homework," Mr. Richter said.

"If Pennsylvania has a task force in place, I'm hoping they've already addressed the issue of exchanges of animals among game farms and their interactions with wild deer, and have rules and regulations in place to address that."

Mr. Richter said a quarantine may be necessary beyond the affected game farms into the wild deer population.

"Hunters won't like that, but they'll like the alternative even less," he said. "If this gets [into the wild] it will really put pressure on resources that are already stretched thin. It drains away people and dollars from working on other conservation issues, and will pit deer hunters against the agencies. It will bring up the deer wars all over again."

state - environment

Laura Olson contributed. John Hayes: jhayes@post-gazette.com.


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