The Pennsylvania Game Commission is in the process of testing around 4,000 deer and 53 elk for chronic wasting disease (CWD).
First found in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD is a degenerative brain disease that causes cervids, including all species of deer, elk, and moose, to act in an uncoordinated manner, drool, and eventually waste away and die. The commission hopes that the results determine that there are no present cases in Pennsylvania. However, the disease has been confirmed south of the Mason-Dixon Line below Pennsylvania's Bedford and Fulton counties.
"It is very close to our borders. The closest point is in Maryland, so we've been doing a lot of intensive sampling of deer in that area this year," said Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Feaser said that results for tested elk will be available later in the month, with deer samples being finished closer to March. The collection teams use brains and brain stems to test for CWD, with many of the samples being taken from deer killed during the two-week firearm hunting period that began the Monday following Thanksgiving.
If there is confirmation of CWD in any of the collected animals, Feaser said that the game commission will move to contain the disease by reducing populations in the specific area. There is currently no cure or treatment for the disease.
"If a certain area was identified as a CWD hotspot, then clearly that would affect what type of measures are utilized for deer management within that area," Feaser said.
Feaser said that hunters are taught to never kill a deer displaying the characteristics of CWD, but rather report it to the commission. Similarly, he said that even though there is no specific research behind it, he suggests not eating meat from a deer that may have been infected with CWD.
USGS Distribution of Chronic Wasting Disease in North America in April 2007