One of the biggest outdoor stories of 2013 was the discovery of chronic wasting disease in wild deer here in Pennsylvania.
Last March, the Pennsylvania Game Commission revealed that three deer testing positive for the disease were taken by hunters in Blair and Bedford counties during the 2012 deer season. The first confirmed case of CWD for 2013 came last week when the Game Commission reported that a road-killed deer in Bedford County tested positive for CWD.
CWD is a contagious disease that attacks the brain and nervous system of members of the deer family, including whitetails, mule deer, elk and moose.
There is no preventive vaccine, no way to test live animals for CWD, no treatment for it and no cure. Once an animal becomes infected with CWD, the disease is always fatal. Although there is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans, eating the meat of infected animals is not recommended.
CWD was first identified as a disease in 1976 in captive mule deer at a wildlife research facility in Colorado and in 1979 in captive mule deer at a Wyoming research facility. The first documented case of CWD in a wild animal occurred in 1981 with a wild elk in Colorado. In 1985, wild mule deer in both Colorado and Wyoming were identified with CWD. Captive elk with CWD were found in Saskatchewan in 1996 and South Dakota 1997.
CWD was documented east of the Mississippi River for first time occurred in 2002 when the disease was discovered in wild white-tailed deer Wisconsin and Illinois. When CWD was found in wild whitetails in New York and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia during 2005, and then in western Maryland in 2010 just m south of the Pennsylvania border, it seemed inevitable that CWD would be show up in Pennsylvania sooner rather than later.
That occurrence came in October 2012 when captive deer in Adams County were found to have CWD, followed the news that routine testing of hunter-killed deer revealed the first confirmed cases of CWD in free-ranging deer in Pennsylvania.
Based on the experience of other states, some of which have been dealing with CWD in wild deer herds for many years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission had a CWD response plan in place to deal with an outbreak of the disease here. As part of that plan, two disease management areas (DMAs) were established in order to focus monitoring efforts and to contain as much as possible the presence of CWD in the deer herd there.
DMA 2 comprises a 900-square-mile area that includes parts of Bedford, Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties. Special regulations were put in place in each DMA including the prohibition of the feeding any wild deer within the DMA or the removal of any designated high-risk deer parts outside of the DMA.
Road-killed deer within the DMAs were also recovered and tested throughout the year. As part of that effort, a 1 1/2-year-old buck killed in November on Interstate 99 in Bedford County was confirmed to be positive for CWD in test results that were returned on Dec. 24. As some slight good news, this deer was found between the locations of the other CWD-infected deer in 2012, so this discovery would not require widening the perimeters of the DMA for now. As part of its ongoing CWD monitoring, the Game Commission plans to collect 1,000 samples from within each DMA and another 3,000 samples from hunter-killed deer statewide. The results of all those tests will likely not be available for several weeks.
"It's not as if we hope to find CWD positives as we continue our ongoing surveillance," Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe said. "But the fact is that each test result that comes back - positive or negative - gives us a clearer picture of how prevalent the disease is, and monitoring for CWD is an important part of our efforts to manage its spread."
CWD has never been stopped anywhere it has occurred, and once the disease gains a foothold somewhere, it always gets worse and always spreads.
Given that grim set of facts, it is almost certain more cases of CWD will be discovered in the coming weeks as the samples of hunter-killed deer are evaluated, and those results will provide further evidence of the extent of prevalence of CWD in our region.