The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 11, 2012

Column: Six degrees of chronic wasting

Fatal deer disease ripple effect goes beyond the treestand

By John Zaktansky
The Daily Item

— On one cold, rainy autumn afternoon at a Lycoming College dorm room years ago, my college roommate introduced me to Kevin Bacon.

Not the actor himself, but the game — six degrees of Kevin Bacon. He wondered how quickly I could connect Kevin Bacon to Burt Reynolds using people they acted with to create the quickest connection. He said it couldn’t be done in less than four degrees. The stakes included pizza at the restaurant up the street.

The thrill of victory never tasted so good, and so cheesy — compliments of John C. Reilly (who acted with Bacon in The River Wild and with Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights).

State officials have been playing their own version of that game lately.

Except in this case, it is no game. The stakes are much higher than a few slices from Two Boys from Italy.

In a scene that could have been ripped from a Stephen King novel, a deadly deer-borne disease has been confirmed at a farm in Adams County. The attempts to contain the disease have met with some unexpected obstacles and caused a trail of unexpected and undeserved hardships.

Chronic wasting disease is a contagious neurological disease that affects cervids — deer, elk and moose. It attacks the brain, leaving behind lesions that ultimately kill the deer. There is no cure. There is no vaccine.

Spread by deer-to-deer contact such as nuzzling and via saliva, feces and urine, CWD can be transferred from one animal to another and then fester for years before showing symptoms and eventually killing the animal.

Which makes containing the disease a tricky proposition. State officials had to track the sale of the original doe that died from CWD in Adams County, and then figure out what deer it allegedly came in contact with during its three years of life. Both directly and indirectly, she likely could have come in contact with hundreds of deer. The spider web of connections spead out over the state, and officials pinpointed 27 farms that have deer that could have had a connection to the original.

The state promptly quarantined each farm, locking them down with black-and-white expectations that simply stated that they could not sell or buy any deer for up to five years.

“The feed bill just keeps rising. We had considered scaling down as it was,” said Michael Ficks of Nittany Mountain Hunting Preserve near New Columbia. “It is a lot of work. You feed and care for the deer all the time waiting to get to this point when we start having hunts and now we can’t do it.”

Ficks did admit that he understands why the state took the route it did, saying he respected the agencies for taking a hard stance on the issue.

“You work so hard to follow all the regulations as honest people trying to do everything right. And now, we’re the ones who are stuck with deer that will need to be fed and cared for over the next five years and we can’t get anything in return. How are we supposed to manage that?” said Melissa Beachel of Power View Whitetails near Danville, another of the area’s quarantined farms.

“And why? Because we happened to buy deer from a farm that years ago sold a 3-week-old fawn that eventually died from chronic wasting disease in a different part of the state? Who’s to say it didn’t get the disease at some point over the past several years down there?”

It was hard to ignore the feeling of desperation in Beachel’s voice as she shared her opinion on the phone.

Many of us will look at the CWD story and its developments moving forward through the flourescent orange lenses of hunters who worry about the spread of the disease into state’s wild population. But remember that this situation has a ripple effect that goes well beyond the treestand.

Hunters and CWD

While there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease affects humans, though, Pennsylvania Game Commission representative Jerry Feaser urges that all hunters be cautious and make smart decisions while in the woods this fall and winter.

“If you see a deer acting strangely or that seems sick in any way, don’t kill it. Instead, report it to the game commission. If you do harvest a deer that appears sick or out of the ordinary afterwards, report it to the game commission,” he said. “The state is more than willing to issue a replacement tag if you get a deer that is unfit for human consumption.”

Feaser also suggests carrying field dressing gloves with you at all times while hunting and to make sure that any instruments are properly cleaned.

“Every year we wind up getting one or two hunters who turn in a rabid deer, there is always potential risk when hunting,” he said. “Just use common sense and exercise caution and you’ll be fine.”

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