Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has become a major issue in Pennsylvania deer farming and hunting, especially after the state’s first cases were reported last year in farmed deer in Adams County and three free-ranging deer in Bedford and Blair counties.
Chronic wasting disease, like mad cow disease and scrapie, is a prion disease. Prions, a type of folded protein, occur naturally in mammals, but CWD causes malformed proteins to multiply and cause holes in brain tissue, Craig Shultz, the state veterinarian, said.
The disease is always fatal in deer but has not been linked to illness in humans. Shultz recommends people not eat meat from CWD-infected deer.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has set up disease management areas around the places where the CWD-positive deer were taken.
Hunters are not allowed to remove from these zones the body parts, such as the brain and lymph nodes, believed to carry the disease. These organs should be sent to the landfill and not buried: Chronic wasting can contaminate soils for many years, Game Commission Executive Director Carl Roe said in a letter to hunters.
The state Department of Agriculture inspects all deer farming operations yearly and runs a five-year herd certification program that verifies that the herd is CWD-free. Smaller operations, like hunting preserves and hobbyists, participate in the state’s herd monitoring program.
Shultz said these programs started years before the disease was identified in the state.
Still, a Pennsylvania deer tested positive for the disease in a captive herd that had been certified CWD-free for five years, he said.
“We have significant concern about controlling the disease in our captive cervid industry,” Shultz said.
The federal government has also clamped down on interstate transport of deer in the past year, he said.
Though the fatal disorder has caused concern for the government and consumers, Trent Hutchison of Highbourne Deer Farm in Dallastown said people should not be concerned about eating Highbourne’s meat.
“Chronic wasting disease is probably the biggest joke there ever was,” he said.
The disease has needlessly ruined many deer herds, he said, as the initial response to the disease’s appearance was to kill and burn thousands of deer.
Most cases have been in whitetails, though it has also been diagnosed in the United States in blacktail deer, elk, moose and mule deer.
Only one red deer has tested positive for the disease, a captive female that died last year in Minnesota, according to that state’s Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s not a problem, and it’s really a nonissue,” Hutchison said.
As for deer farmers, “they all know what’s going on. They’re not concerned,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission requires that every captive deer over a year old that dies, whether in the pen or at the slaughterhouse, must be tested for CWD.
“We have to test every animal that dies, even if they bounce off the fence and break their neck,” said Janet Moyher, who runs the small Black Rock Deer Farm in Latrobe with her husband, John Moyher.
That testing is $25 a head, Hutchison said.
Shultz said that so far no reliable tests can diagnose chronic wasting disease in live deer. “That is the thinking behind 100 percent mortality testing,” he said.
Pennsylvania has 1,100 deer farms, and chronic wasting has shown up in only one.
“I don’t think we’re dealing with an extraordinarily high incidence,” he said.
Cheryl Trewella, a Game Commission information officer, said that hunters should not kill animals they suspect of having the disease.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to say if it does have CWD or not just by looking at it,” she said.
Hunters who see a deer stumbling, salivating profusely or allowing hunters to get unusually close should instead report the location to the Game Commission.
Jonathan Atkins was a hobby deer farmer in Lebanon for 14 years. His herd was certified CWD-free for more than a decade, but he got out of the business a few months ago because of the threat of chronic wasting disease.
Atkins said chronic wasting has produced a tremendous amount of negative publicity for deer farmers.
“This is a huge detriment to the future of their livelihood,” he said.
Deer can be kept healthier by putting the proper number on one’s acreage and by liming the pens to kill germs, but the question marks surrounding the disease make it hard to confront, Atkins said.