New rule proposed to help curb deer disease

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a rule change intended to increase cooperation among states and the federal government in hopes of reducing outbreaks of chronic wasting disease.

Under the CWD Herd Certification Program, USDA would set up a voluntary federal-state-industry cooperative program in which commercial deer farmers would certify their herds as CWD-free. The proposed program provides no consequences for failure to participate.

In October, the first case of CWD in Pennsylvania was detected in a captive-born penned white-tailed deer in Adams County. Confirmation of the disease sparked a planned multi-agency response including declaration of a 600-square-mile Disease Management Area (DMA) in which some restrictions were placed on hunters and check stations were set up to inspect all hunter-shot wild deer taken within the zone.

More than 1,000 samples were collected from the DMA for testing by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. No indications of CWD have been detected in wild deer in Pennsylvania. Last week the state Game Commission announced that mandatory deer checks had ended and check station visits would be voluntary during the late archery and flintlock muzzleloader seasons, but a "parts ban" remained in effect -- no high-risk deer parts are permitted to leave the DMA. Hunters must remove the antlers on heads prior to depositing them at the check station. Also, a deer that had escaped from a farm affiliated with the Adams County operation was found to be not infected with CWD.

The fatal, untreatable brain disease, which is spread through body fluids, is confirmed among wild deer populations in New York, West Virginia and Maryland. It cannot be contracted by humans, and Pennsylvania has issued no venison consumption advisory.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) recently encouraged USDA to adopt the rule change.

"Preventing an outbreak in captive and wild herds is very important to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I urge USDA to continue CWD surveillance in farmed and captive deer and elk," wrote Sen. Casey, in a letter to USDA secretary Tom Vilsack. "... I further request that USDA carefully consider Pennsylvania's position in issuing a final rule. Protecting the captive herd will ensure the health and security of both our captive and wild populations of deer."

Pennsylvania ranks second in the United States for sales from commercial deer and elk farms, contributing $40 million annually to the state economy.

The state Department of Agriculture has had jurisdiction over deer and elk farming operations since 2006. Prior to that, when oversight was the responsibility of the state Game Commission, the agency had lobbied for implementation of a mandatory CWD monitoring program at deer farms, said spokesman Jerry Feaser.

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