Game commission kicks up response to chronic wasting disease

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — With increased cases of chronic wasting disease in the wild deer population, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is increasing efforts to contain the disease.

ABC27 News joined Wayne LaRoche, the commission’s special assistant for CWD, for recent field work being performed on State Game Lands #87 in Clearfield County. The area is part of Disease Management Area #3 established by the agency earlier this year. LaRoche says a member of the public discovered a sick-looking free-ranging buck and alerted game officers who euthanized the deer. It later tested positive for CWD.

“Generally, our thinking is when we find one positive deer — because deer are social animals, there’s very likely going to be other positive deer,” LaRoche said.

Using GPS coordinates, LaRoche locates the exact spot in the woods where the positive-testing buck was located in June. A quick survey of the area turns up several piles of fresh deer droppings, which he collects for research. While there is currently no reliable way to test a live animal for CWD, LaRoche says there are two research efforts underway that could help develop such a test in the future.

“These particular droppings will go out for DNA,” he said, using a biodegradable birch spoon to collect a few pellets and insert them into an ethanol-filled sterile tube. “If we can help come up with a better way to test, that will help us determine how this disease exists in the environment.”

According to the game commission’s website, CWD is a disease that affects the brain and nervous system of infected deer, elk, and moose,  eventually resulting in death. The disease is spread by a mutated protein called a prion, which is in the same family of diseases as mad cow disease. While no human cases of CWD have been detected, the Centers for Disease Control does not recommend consuming the meat of an infected animal.

LaRoche, a former head of Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and previously director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, believes increased testing of deer, surveillance and targeted shooting operations are the key to controlling the spread of the disease. At the start of Pennsylvania’s statewide archery season, the game commission installed dozens of deer head collection bins within DMA 3 and DMA 2, a larger known CWD area in the south-central region of the state encompassing portions of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria and Franklin counties.

Heads collected in the bins will be tested for CWD free-of-charge to hunters, who will be notified of the results. An original DMA which included portions of Adams and York counties was established in 2012 when a captive deer was found on a game farm, but the DMA was dissolved this year after five years passed without further detection of the disease.

“Hunters can place their deer head into a plastic bag and place it in this secure box, which resembles a clothing donation box,” LaRoche said. “They keep the ear tag attached. We’re hoping this provides a service to hunters and helps facilitate our ability to determine where in the landscape the disease is. If the deer tests negative, we send them a letter. If it tests positive, one of our officers will be in touch to learn more about where the deer came from.”

Biologists with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture are able to detect CWD by examining the lymph nodes and brain stems of dead deer. The cost of each test is approximately $25 each for the commission, which has a current annual budget of $2.5 million for CWD operations.

Following the conclusion of deer hunting season, LaRoche says shooting operations will take place within both active DMAs in an effort to further reduce the population of deer susceptible to contracting and spreading CWD. The operations, commissioned through the USDA, are described as discreet and require landowner permission when taking place on private land.

To gain more information about the current population of deer in those areas, the PGC uses a forward-looking infrared camera, or FLIR, to track deer at night when they are most active. Frequent surveys of the herd between now and January will allow the shooting operations to focus on the most heavily populated parts of the DMAs. FLIR surveys will then continue for years following the shooting operations.

“So, we’ll know not only if we shoot deer and start removing them from the area,” LaRoche said. “Then, how fast does the population recover? Because the sportsmen are going to want to know. How long does it take for our deer to come back? Right now, we think three or four years, but we want to have solid data to share with the public.”

CWD monitoring in Pennsylvania’s captive deer herd is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

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