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Chronic wasting disease found in wild deer herd

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What it means

The discovery of chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania's wild deer herd will carry consequences for hunters, deer farmers, people who like to feed and watch deer and others.

The state has a CWD response plan meant to survey the situation and contain the disease's spread. In a case such as this, where the disease is in the free-ranging herd, it allows:

• The Game Commission to establish a disease management zone in the area surrounding the sick deer

• The mandatory testing of all hunter-killed deer and, where possible, the testing of roadkills

• The executive director to ban deer rehabilitation, the feeding of deer and the use of urine-based attractants by hunters

• The liberalization of hunting seasons and bag limits and the removal of antler restrictions

• The use of sharpshooters to remove sick deer

The discovery of the disease could impact deer farmers, too.

The response plan gives the state Department of Agriculture guidelines on how to handle deer farms within the disease management zone. Those guidelines call for quarantining farms and recommends depopulating them.

If the department decides not to kill all of the deer on those farms, the plan says it should, among other things, “require continuous testing of all death losses and recommend double fencing for increased security.”

Friday, March 1, 2013, 12:12 p.m.

The seemingly inevitable has happened: Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, has shown up in Pennsylvania's wild deer herd.

Pennsylvania Game Commission officials announced Friday that three deer taken by hunters during the 2012 firearms deer season tested positive for the disease. Two of the animals were killed in Blair County and the third in Bedford County.

All of the deer came from outside the disease management zone established by the commission after wasting disease was discovered in a farm-raised deer in Adams County last October.

“The three CWD positives were part of 2,945 deer sampled for the disease statewide,” said Game Commission executive director Carl Roe. “To date, we have received test results from 1,500 samples, including these three positive samples. Results from the remaining samples should be available in the next few weeks.”

The commission prioritized the testing of deer based on location.

A total of 2,089 hunter-killed deer from within the disease management zone were tested first, followed by hunter-killed deer from elsewhere across the state's southern tier. The samples remaining to be tested are likely all from deer that were harvested in more northern counties, said commission spokesman Joe Neville.

“Our hope is that means it is contained,” he said.

The commission knows generally where the three CWD-positive deer were taken. Hunters who kill a deer have to list the township in which they got it on their back tag and report card. Wildlife conservation officers are trying to narrow things down further, though.

“Now, we're looking out there, on the ground, to find out as exactly as we can where those deer were taken. We're trying to be as precise as we can,” Neville said.

How the disease got into the wild herd, no one can say for sure.

Wasting disease has existed in Maryland's wild herd — just 10 miles over the state line from Bedford County — for a couple of years. Game Commission veterinarian Walt Cottrell said previously that it would be possible for sick deer to wander back and forth across that boundary.

But a couple of the CWD-positive deer discovered in Pennsylvania are believed to have been taken within 10 miles of where an escaped captive deer known as Purple 4 was roaming the woods of Huntingdon County last fall.

That deer had ties to the Adams County farm where chronic wasting disease first showed up. It was later killed by a hunter. It was tested; results labeled it was “not detected” for CWD.

That doesn't mean the deer didn't have the disease, officials said then. It was just not confirmed.

There were reportedly several other farm-raised deer that escaped into the wild in that part of the state — home to one of the densest concentrations of deer farms in Pennsylvania — over the past 12 to 18 months, too, Neville added. The commission is working with the Department of Agriculture to put a number to that and see what happened to those animals, he added.

But whether those farms and their escapees might be a factor in the disease showing up in the wild, Neville would not say.

“I can't comment on the obvious coincidences,” he said.

In the meantime, the members of the state's Interagency CWD Task Force were meeting Friday to discuss the discovery of the disease and how to handle it.

The Game Commission will follow up with a press conference Monday afternoon at its Harrisburg headquarters. It also is planning to hold a public meeting on wasting disease somewhere in the Blair/Bedford county area later this month. Its time, place and location likely will be announced later next week.

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