With chronic wasting disease, facts as scary as the unknown

Bob Frye
| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

As I pulled in at 7:05 p.m. — five minutes late, given some confusing directions — the parking lot at Cove Middle School was jam-packed.

Every available space was taken. The words “no parking” painted in white on the blacktop adjacent to the sidewalks were covered by, yes, parked vehicles. Drivers had carved out landing spots elsewhere by putting two tires on the driveway, two in the grass.

Inside the auditorium it was standing-room only.

It was a predominantly male crowd. There were camo ballcaps and jackets sprinkled through every row of seats. Flannel shirts and hoodies emblazoned with images of deer filled in the gaps.

A TV reporter, conspicuous in her bright pink overcoat, looked like the only one in the room whose boots hadn't stepped on an acorn or deer poop in the woods since fall.

All those folks were there to hear Pennsylvania Game Commission officials talk about the discovery of chronic wasting disease in the state's wild deer herd.

It appeared in Pennsylvania for the first time last October in a farm-raised deer in Adams County. Subsequent testing found it in three hunter-killed deer — two in Blair County and one in Bedford — taken in the firearms deer season.

Now, it's likely here to stay.

“There are two things this disease does when it arrives: It gets worse, and it spreads,” commission wildlife veterinarian Walt Cottrell said.

That was about as upbeat as his presentation got.

The mysteries surrounding wasting disease are numerous and great, Cottrell said. No one knows whether it developed spontaneously, evolved from scrapie in sheep — even though it has no DNA or RNA and shouldn't be able to — or arose otherwise. No one's developed a vaccine to prevent it, a medicine to treat it or a live animal test for it. No one's figured out how to get rid of it once established, either.

All that, and what's known about the disease might be worse.

The prions that carry it can be spread by a deer for months or years before it dies. They become 700 times more potent when they bond to soil through feces or saliva. They can be destroyed in a lab by heating them to 2,500 degrees for 15 minutes, but in the wild they're “indestructible,” Cottrell added.

“It's a little like science fiction, but it's real,” he said.

It was only a matter of time until the disease cropped up here. Like an obese man who smokes, drinks to excess, feasts on fatty foods and shuns exercise, Pennsylvania has been a CWD heart attack waiting to happen.

It's long had all of the risk factors: proximity to other states with the disease; rules allowing the feeding and baiting of deer; a concentration of captive deer farms; and rules allowing hunters to use deer urine, among other things, Cottrell said.

That will almost surely mean fewer deer going forward. That's what every other state with the disease has experienced, Cottrell said.

The Game Commission has established disease management areas in an attempt to limit that. Whether they will make a difference is one more riddle yet unanswered, said Cal DuBrock, director of its bureau of wildlife management.

“But I guess in Pennsylvania, we're going to find out.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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