Disease could threaten Md. deer

Chronic wasting disease found in slain W.Va. buck, 8 miles from the state line

September 08, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

A fatal disease that attacks deer and elk and has forced wildlife officials to slaughter thousands of the animals across the country has been discovered just eight miles from Western Maryland.

State biologists met yesterday to map their response to reports that chronic wasting disease was found in a 2 1/2 -year-old buck outside Slanesville, W.Va., near Allegany County. It is the first case in the region.

"This is as close to the other side of the creek as you want it to be," said Paul Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

With the start of deer season less than a week away, wildlife managers are hoping to determine the extent of the problem to avoid scaring off hunters needed to control Maryland's robust deer population of about 260,000. Each year, hunters kill more than 85,000 deer.

Peditto said his biologists are waiting for the outcome of West Virginia's testing to determine whether this is an isolated case or if the disease could threaten Maryland's herd.

West Virginia sharpshooters are killing 100 deer within a five-mile radius of where the infected animal was struck by a vehicle so biologists can sample brain stem tissue for the disease. The samples, which have been given the highest priority, are being sent to a federal laboratory for testing. The first results are expected by the end of the month.

"If they were to get a second positive [case] in the same area, it's likely it would implicate Maryland's deer," Peditto said.

Chronic wasting disease was first identified in Colorado in 1967. It is a neurological infection similar to mad-cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Infected animals stagger, slobber and gradually lose the ability to keep themselves alive.

Federal agriculture officials say there is no evidence it can affect humans, but they advise against eating meat from infected animals.

For two decades, the disease was contained in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and Canada, but in 2002 it jumped the Mississippi River and infected a wild herd in Wisconsin. It has since been detected in Illinois and earlier this year in upstate New York.

Maryland has been testing deer for the disease since 1999 and intensified efforts in 2002 with the help of hunters who allowed biologists to remove the brain stems of their deer for testing. In the past three years, Maryland has tested 2,200 animals with no positive results.

In Wisconsin, where wildlife officials eradicated 25,000 deer from a 411-square-mile tract, hunters grew fearful of handling infected deer. Hunting license sales fell 10 percent and the number of deer killed dropped by nearly 30,000, despite a $300,000 campaign by a hunting group.

Peditto hopes that doesn't happen here.

"We know a lot more than Wisconsin knew in 2003, and my belief is the hunting public is much better informed," he said. "The worst-case scenario is hunters stay out of the woods so we have a deer population that is no longer under control and a database that goes away. Not hunting is the wrong response to this disease."

Peditto said his staff will test 900 deer this year and concentrate their efforts in Allegany.

One thing in Maryland's favor is that fewer people are keeping pet deer. Scientists believe captive herds are a major factor in spreading the disease.

Maryland stopped issuing deer permits in the mid-1980s and has gradually reduced the number of permits to 18, which represents fewer than 200 captive animals. By comparison, Pennsylvania has more than 800 licensed deer and elk farms that provide animals for hunting preserves and meat for restaurants.

Peditto said Natural Resources Police and his staff are continuing to work with Maryland's deer owners - legal and illegal - to give up their pets.

"While it might look inappropriate for government to be seizing pets, it would be irresponsible for us not to act at this time," he said.

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