Pennsylvania Game Commission Working To Understand Chronic Wasting Disease

Chronic wasting disease is a condition that affects deer populations throughout the country. It’s defined as “a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.”

While it doesn’t appear to have any impact on humans, it’s still not something hunters want to see.

In Pennsylvania, the game commission is stepping up its efforts to understand and eventually combat the disease.

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.”

If someone does take a deer suffering from the disease, LaRoche has some advice on how to help the commission’s investigation out.

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.”

The hope is to not just deal with the disease, but also to learn just how long it takes for a deer population to rebound from the impact of the disease. LaRouche stated that he knew sportsmen would want to know, and it sounds like the commission is looking to find out that information.