Chronic Wasting Disease Is Everyone’s Concern

11/3/2012 7:00 AM

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has a long track record of protecting the state from invasive species and diseases that threaten our animals, plants and livelihoods. Now, a new disease is threatening an important and sometimes overlooked part of agriculture and our economy.

Last month, a white-tailed doe tested positive for chronic wasting disease on an Adams County deer farm, marking the first confirmed case in Pennsylvania. Now we join 22 other states across the country that are battling the disease.

The fatal disease attacks the brain of antlered animals such as deer, elk and moose. There is no evidence that humans or livestock can get the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deer are a necessary and valued part of our wildlife population and economy. Pennsylvania is home to nearly 750,000 hunters who harvest more than 300,000 deer annually. The most recent national study of hunters and anglers shows the sport supports 51,000 jobs and $3.5 billion in spending in Pennsylvania. A healthy deer herd is critical to Pennsylvania’s economy.

Chronic wasting disease has the potential to change that. The disease could affect the way we hunt and manage deer in the wild and on farms. It is not just an Adams County problem; the disease is a statewide issue.

The Department of Agriculture is working to prevent further spread of the disease to the state’s captive and wild deer populations. As our staff investigates the cause of the first positive, we’ve placed quarantines on deer farms across the state to prevent the movement of animals on and off the property.

An interagency task force charged with managing chronic wasting disease meets weekly. It includes the departments of Agriculture, Environmental Protection and Health, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the USDA, U.S. Geological Survey/Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and Penn State University.

The task force will carry out the Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan, created several years ago and updated annually. The plan outlines education, outreach through public meetings and ways to reduce the risk of disease spread through continued surveillance, testing and management.

Pennsylvania has been monitoring the disease since 1998. The Agriculture Department coordinates a mandatory monitoring program for more than 23,000 captive deer on 1,100 breeding farms, hobby farms and shooting preserves.

We are working closely with all of our Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force partners. My colleague Karl Roe, executive director of the Game Commission, is relying on hunters and others concerned about wildlife to work with us as we strive to manage this disease.

The Game Commission has put together a disease management area, or DMA, surrounding the Adams County farm where the doe was found. As part of that plan, hunters are prohibited from moving high-risk deer parts, including parts of the head and spinal column.

Hunters who harvest a deer within the DMA during the two-week firearms deer season (Nov. 26-Dec. 8) are required to bring their deer to a mandatory check station so samples can be collected for CWD testing. For the convenience of hunters, all deer processors within the DMA will be considered check stations, and the Game Commission will be gathering samples from hunter-killed deer at those processors.

Additionally, the Game Commission-operated check station is at the agency’s maintenance building on State Game Land 249, 1070 Lake Meade Road, East Berlin, Adams County. During the two-week rifle deer season, the agency’s check station will be open 8 a.m.-8 p.m., but will remain open beyond 8 p.m. as needed.

Deer harvested outside the DMA will not be eligible for testing at the check station; however, hunters may get their deer tested by the Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Laboratory in Harrisburg, for a fee. Interested hunters should call 717-787-8808.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission collects samples from hunter-harvested deer and elk, and those that appear sick or behave abnormally. Since 1998, the commission has tested more than 38,000 free-ranging deer and elk for the disease, and all have tested negative.

The Game Commission recommends hunters shoot only healthy appearing animals, and take precautions by wearing rubber gloves when field-dressing deer and washing thoroughly when finished.

Pennsylvanians enjoy the sport of hunting and use their harvest to provide food for their families. We’re working to ensure future generations have the same opportunities we’ve cherished for many centuries.

George Greig is the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.

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