Fatal disease moves closer to state's deer population

First confirmed case east of Illinois worries officials

April 01, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

A fatal disease that forced the slaughter and incineration of thousands of deer and elk in the Rocky Mountains and Midwest has moved to within striking distance of Maryland, capturing the attention of state wildlife officials.

New York health and environment officials yesterday confirmed a case of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, in a six-year-old white-tailed doe from a captive herd in Oneida County, about 30 miles east of Syracuse.

The disease, which attacks and destroys the brains of deer, elk and moose, has forced the killing of thousands of wild and captive animals in 12 states and two Canadian provinces. It was first detected in Colorado in 1967 and spread east, reaching Wisconsin in 2002.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials met yesterday morning to discuss the development and ways to protect the state's 225,000 wild deer.

"Our blood pressure went up when CWD crossed the Mississippi River. Now it's just 330 miles straight up [Interstate] 81," said Paul A. Peditto, head of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "This is the news we were hoping we'd never have to hear in the Northeast. It's the kind of news that puts you on a heightened state of alert."

Natural Resources Police officers and wildlife biologists will be moving quickly under a policy approved in January to eliminate the dozen or so illegal captive herds that officials say are scattered in fenced fields across the state.

"I'd say that [New York's announcement] is a fairly substantial exclamation point on the fact that this is a serious issue," Peditto said.

State officials are also weighing whether to "ratchet up surveillance efforts" on the wild herd, he said.

During the 2002-2003 deer season, DNR conducted tests on the brain stems of 300 white-tailed deer killed by hunters. Biologists focused their attention along the Pennsylvania line because that state has 800 licensed deer and elk farms and an equal number of unlicensed ones.

Last year, the state tested 800 animals, adding Eastern Shore deer to the sampling.

"We will do what it takes to keep the disease at bay," Peditto said.

Pennsylvania agencies have been put on alert as they await the results of New York's tests.

"We're sitting on the edge of our seat, watching. Our agencies are talking to each other, and we are attuned to what is happening in New York," said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "We're pleased New York was so open. It allows us to gear up and be ready."

Pennsylvania tests all elk killed by hunters and last year increased the number of deer tested to 3,600 from 2,000.

New York officials have ordered the remaining 16 deer in the Oneida herd killed and tested. They also have quarantined other animals that could have come in contact with the infected doe.

"This is not a public health threat, but it is a slow-moving animal health threat," said Bruce Akey, New York's assistant state veterinarian. "So far, there is no known connection with any previously identified CWD-positive herds or areas in the United States."

That the disease has apparently hopscotched from the Midwest - the nearest states where CWD has been found are Illinois and Wisconsin - puzzles and alarms wildlife officials.

"It's spooky," Peditto said. "It's not what we know about this disease today that gives us pause. It's what it could do tomorrow. All of these questions about how it travels and how it is transmitted are answered by, `Oh, my.'"

CWD is caused by a mutant protein called a prion. The disease, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, is in the same family as mad cow disease, scrapie, which affects sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which attacks humans.

The prion riddles the brains of deer and elk with microscopic lesions. When the animals become infected, they stagger, slobber and show little fear of humans. They gradually lose the ability to live.

A Maryland natural resources policy, approved in January, gives deer owners who don't have permits a 90-day amnesty period to remove the deer from their property without penalty.

Peditto said Natural Resources Police officers and wildlife biologists will visit the homes of violators, remind them of the policy, and offer to remove the deer or help the owner locate an out-of-state facility, such as a petting zoo, that can legally accept the animals.

If a suitable new home can be found, DNR will sign an export permit to allow the relocation.

"Our hope is that most people will accept this approach," Peditto said.

The new policy represents an about-face from last fall, when Natural Resources Police officers raided a Pasadena home, seizing and killing 14 deer that were kept illegally but had become favorites of school children and Sunday school classes. The arrest of the owners of the deer was criticized by local civic leaders and state lawmakers.

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