State sets up plan for deer disease

Wildlife officials devise strategy in case chronic wasting illness is found in Maryland

Baltimore & Region


At the first sign of the fatal illness nicknamed "mad deer disease," trained sharpshooters with silencers and night-vision scopes will be sent to Maryland's woods as the first line of defense against a massive outbreak.

With the deer hunting season intensifying, state wildlife officials last week rolled out an aggressive plan to contain chronic wasting disease, which has killed thousands of deer and elk across the country.

"Can I stand here and tell you it isn't here? No, I can't. Can it happen here? I honestly suspect it will," said Bob Beyer, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service.

The disease, which was first detected 40 years ago in the Rocky Mountains, has spread east to 14 states and two Canadian provinces. Last month, it was found in four deer in West Virginia.

"When it was confirmed in West Virginia, we put our plan into high gear," Beyer said.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological illness similar to mad cow disease in cattle 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 advise against eating infected animals.

The only reliable test requires a sample from an animal's brain.

Maryland, with a deer population of 260,000, has been testing for six years. Each season, biologists have increased and fine-tuned the sampling to concentrate on areas where the disease is most likely to enter the state.

"What tells me we're doing a good job is that when the reports from West Virginia came in, people called us. But they weren't panicked, they weren't scared, they just wanted more information," Beyer said.

Paul Peditto, the director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service, said more than 900 animals will be tested this year, with a concentration on Allegany County.

Under the new response plan, a five-mile circle around the spot where the infected animal was found will be targeted for intensive testing. State sharpshooters will provide up to 300 deer carcasses to be tested. Additional positive tests would expand the boundaries.

Peditto said his agency is physically and financially prepared to handle a small number of infected deer in a concentrated area, "but two infection zones 100 miles apart would shut us down."

New York spent more than $1 million this year to contain an outbreak of the disease. Wisconsin spent $12 million two years ago to eradicate 25,000 deer in a 411-square-mile area.

The state is attempting to eliminate herds of captive deer and elk, which research indicates are more likely to become infected and spread the disease.

By the end of the year, all captive animals must be sterilized or separated by sex and penned by fences at least 10 feet tall.

DNR and Natural Resources Police are using an amnesty program to coax owners into turning over illegally held animals.

"We definitely want to get rid of these herds," Beyer said.

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