Dr. Walt Cottrell, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wildlife veterinarian, is quick to offer up some frightening facts about chronic wasting disease.
• Deer have no resistance to the disease.
• If it enters Pennsylvania, it will be here forever.
• It could change deer hunting and management for generations to come.
But the scariest of all?
The lack of concern from Pennsylvania residents about the severity of the disease.
"It's not immediate enough. It takes a long time to develop, but once it's here it's here forever," Cottrell said, adding that the best defense to keep CWD out of Pennsylvania is prevention.
That includes a parts ban that prohibits hunters from bringing back certain parts of any cervid from states where CWD is present.
"Every year I have people tell me ‘How was I to know about the parts ban?'" Cottrell said. "Taxidermy parts is the way the disease came into New York, and people totally ignored the parts ban.
"We need to make inroads into the importance of that ban."
One reason is because the disease is close. It has been found in neighboring states such as Maryland, New York and West Virginia. Cottrell is surprised that CWD hasn't been found in Pennsylvania, yet.
"The probability increases every year," he said. "It's either going to come across the border from Maryland (CWD has been found just over 10 miles from the border), from a live animal that escapes captivity and has the disease or a taxidermy part from an infected animal."
First identified in 1967, CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) that affects cervids, including all species of deer, elk and moose. It is a progressive and always fatal disease of the nervous system. Scientists believe CWD is caused by an unknown agent capable of transforming normal brain proteins into an abnormal form.
Cottrell said the disease essentially stops an infected animal from eating, and it could remain in the incubation stage for one to two years.
"It's a very slow, insidious process," he said. "Deer have no resistance – that's one of the heartbreaks of this disease. It's something that the immune system is not set up for."
Every year, before the onset of the deer hunting season – which kick off with archery on Sept. 29, the PGC launches a public campaign to raise awareness about the disease and the importance of the parts ban. Commissioner Jay Delaney, who represents the northeast region on the PGC board, said Cottrell routinely sends emails to the board updating them on the status of CWD.
Delaney said the agency's CWD surveillance and prevention program – which includes testing approximately 4,000 deer annually, have worked to keep the disease out of the state.
The Game Commission also has a response plan in place if CWD is detected in the state.
Despite the safeguards, Cottrell is still concerned.
"It may already be closer than 10 miles to our border, but it's hard to detect," he said.
"When it comes to wildlife diseases, this is right at the top because it can actually alter population levels. It spreads into areas, never leaves, and once it's ion the soil it's here forever."
The parts ban prohibits hunters from bringing back specific carcass parts where CWD prions concentrate, including: the head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and any lymph nodes); spinal cord/backbone; spleen; skull plate with attached antlers, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; cape, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; upper canine teeth, if root structure or other soft tissue is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord tissue; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.
States and provinces included in the parts ban are: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland (only from CWD Management Area), Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York (only from Madison and Oneida counties), North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia (only from CWD Containment Area), West Virginia (only from CWD Containment Area, which now includes parts of three counties), Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Pennsylvania hunters heading to a state with a history of CWD should become familiar with that state's wildlife regulations and guidelines for the transportation of harvested game animals. Wildlife officials have suggested hunters in areas where CWD is known to exist follow these usual recommendations to prevent the possible spread of disease:
• Do not shoot, handle or consume any animal that appears sick; contact the state wildlife agency if you see or harvest an animal that appears sick.
• Wear rubber or latex gloves when field-dressing carcasses.
• Bone out the meat from your animal.
• Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissues.
• Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field-dressing is completed.
• Request that your animal is processed individually, without meat from other animals being added to meat from your animal, or process your own meat if you have the tools and ability to do so.
• Have your animal processed in the endemic area of the state where it was harvested, so that high-risk body parts can be properly disposed of there.Only bring permitted materials back to Pennsylvania.
• Don't consume the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils or lymph nodes of harvested animals. (Normal field-dressing, coupled with boning out a carcass, will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will help remove remaining lymph nodes.)
• Consider not consuming the meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.