ROARING SPRING - Hunters turned Spring Cove Middle School's 500-seat auditorium into a sea of camouflage Wednesday as state Game Commission officers revealed the first hints of their response to chronic wasting disease in wild deer.
In an hourslong presentation to a packed house, commission veterinarian Walt Cottrell and Bureau of Wildlife Management Director Calvin DuBrock detailed how the deadly deer illness' spreads and the prognosis for Blair and Bedford counties, the site of Pennsylvania's first wild outbreak.
Two deer in Blair and one in Bedford killed during the fall rifle season tested positive for the disease. The two bucks and one doe were killed in and around Morrisons Cove.
"There is no place where this disease has ever occurred that it has been stopped," Cottrell said. "There are two things the disease does when it arrives: It gets worse, and it spreads."
Chronic wasting disease, which slowly destroys deer's brains and ends in certain death, spread to Pennsylvania sometime before the fall hunting season. While there's no evidence that the disease can affect humans, it decimates deer populations when it hits, Cottrell said.
In response, Game Commission officials have declared a "disease management area" ranging from the turnpike in Bedford County to a Tyrone-Huntingdon axis in the north and from Portage in the west to Raystown Lake in the east.
What's unclear is exactly what the commission plans to do.
"We're going to have a measured response ... an adaptive response," DuBrock told the audience, noting that the Game Commission director holds the power to bypass the Legislature by issuing executive orders.
Those orders - likely to be developed in the coming weeks and revealed before fall - will affect deer on both private and public lands, he said.
DuBrock said commission officials haven't decided how far to extend new rules. Last year, when chronic wasting disease was detected in farm deer in Adams County, hunters there were ordered to turn in all kills for testing.
Financial constraints might limit a similar program in Blair and Bedford counties, at least in the long term, he said, as those rules cost the agency an estimated $500,000 last year.
Certain to be issued, however, is a ban on the export of high-risk parts - deer brains, lymph nodes, spinal cords and other parts - from the affected area, DuBrock said.
Deer hit by cars in the zone will be tested whenever possible, officials said, and further public hearings will be scheduled before the fall rifle season.
It's too late to stop the illness entirely, Cottrell cautioned. The protein that causes chronic wasting disease survives in the ground indefinitely, and with Pennsylvania's dense heavy deer population its spread is almost guaranteed, he said.
Cottrell said 48 percent of bucks in Wyoming, near the disease's national epicenter, are infected. Pennsylvania's deer population is 10 times as dense, he said, and therefore vastly more likely to transmit the deadly protein.
With the three positives found among just 192 local deer tested since fall, an audience member asked how many others already carry the disease in Blair and Bedford counties.
"More than three," Cottrell said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.