VENESKY: Chronic Wasting Disease threat grows in region

(Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader (TNS)
  • Test results recently revealed CWD in a deer harvested in Franklin County.
  • The trip from western York County to eastern Franklin County is less than an hour.
  • The Pa. Department of Agriculture has found 11 captive deer with CWD.

We’ve all seen the commercials for Las Vegas promising that what happens in the Nevada city, stays there.

I hope the same applies to Franklin County in southcentral Pennsylvania.

At least when it comes to Chronic Wasting Disease.

Nestled along Pennsylvania’s southern border with Maryland, Franklin County is a more than two-hour drive from Wilkes-Barre. The trip from western York County to eastern Franklin County is less than an hour.

It lies between two Disease Management Areas previously established by the Pennsylvania Game Commission several years ago in response to other CWD cases with both domestic and free-ranging deer. The disease kills cervids such as deer and elk, impacting the brain, and is easily spread via a prion that lives in the soil.

To the west of Franklin County is DMA 2, which includes bording Fulton County. And to the east is DMA 1, which encompasses Adams County. The only gap between the two DMAs is Franklin County, and now it appears that gap is poised to be closed.

On Jan. 5, test results confirmed the presence of CWD in 4-year-old deer harvested on a hunting preserve in Franklin County. Assuming the county is eventually included in one of the two neighboring DMAs — which I assume will happen since CWD has been found there, it would mean that almost the entire southcentral region is a disease area, extending from Somerset County to York County.

That’s pretty expansive.

And scary, considering these DMAs weren’t established until the fall of 2012 when the first CWD case appeared in Pennsylvania.

According to the state Department of Agriculture, CWD has been found in 11 captive deer — those on deer farms, since 2012. There are 23,000 captive deer on 1,100 breeding farms in the state, according to the agency.

And one enormous loophole.

Still a risk: The Department of Agriculture conducts a mandatory surveillance program for the 1,100 deer farms in the state. Deer farms are required to participate in one of two agency programs that include testing (which can only be done on a deceased animal), inventory monitoring, movement tracking and animal identification.

But there’s still a risk.

Since CWD testing can only be administered on a dead animal (sampling is conducted on the obex portion of the brain and lymph nodes), live animals that are infected but aren’t exhibiting symptoms can still be moved from farm to farm.

That’s what happened with the latest case in Franklin County. According to the PDA, the deer was raised on a farm in Fulton County (which is part of DMA 2) for several years, and sold to the Franklin County facility in August 2016. Both farms are now under quarantine, which is good, but that’s more of a reactionary move than a preventative step.

We need to be proactive with CWD.

Because the deer displayed no symptoms of CWD and there is nothing prohibiting the movement of captive deer, the disease is now present in another county — Franklin.

So what’s the answer? How can the risk of spreading the disease by transporting deer be mitigated if there isn’t a non-fatal test for CWD?

A good first step: A good first step would be to prohibit the movement of all deer from farms within current DMAs. Since we know the disease is already present in these areas, it’s too risky to allow deer to be transported to farms outside of a DMA. Because the state Department of Agriculture is in charge of managing captive deer farms, this is a step that only that agency can implement.

By doing so I am aware it would equate to a significant financial hit to those deer farms within DMAs that rely on the sale of their deer to make money.

But if CWD continues to spread to new counties, the financial impact to other deer farms, and the entire deer hunting industry, could be devastating.

And there could be more to come.

PGC executive director Matt Hough stated in a news release that seven road-killed deer in DMA 2 have tested positive for CWD this year, and the results of more than 3,000 samples from hunter-harvested deer have yet to come back.

Yes, when it comes to CWD I really hope that what happened in Franklin County stays there.