The Evening Campfire: Diseases endanger Pa. deer herd

As the calendar rolls on toward archery deer season in Pennsylvania, many hunters, conservationists, and wildlife officers are worried about the health of the state deer herd. For several years now, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been a serious concern, especially in the south-central part of the state. Now another disease – EHD – caused by a tiny biting predator, is killing numerous deer in the southwest, especially in Allegheny, Washington, and Beaver Counties. And, for the worry-warts among you, pay attention to news about Creutzfeldt-Jakob outbreaks in Wisconsin. This discovery may re-write the book on whether or not these deer diseases can become dangerous to humans.

CWD was discovered in Wisconsin in 2002 and confirmed in Pennsylvania in 2012. Many attribute its introduction to the transfer of deer from and into private deer farms where the animals are fenced in after arrival. But the real danger to our herd comes from free-ranging deer, in which the disease was discovered later, because of their travel in the woods and potential to spread the disease.

CWD is a highly contagious, always fatal neurological disease that produces small lesions in the brains of infected deer that eventually kill them. More than 60 cases have been reported in the past few years, most of them the south-central counties of Bedford, Blair, Fulton, Cambria, and Franklin.

One of the issues with CWD is that it cannot be confirmed in living deer. Confirmation requires a brain examination that can only be conducted after the death of the animal. As a result, The PGC is beginning a new program whereby they create deer-head drop-boxes (dreadful as that may sound) at convenient locations for hunters who have killed deer and want to help the Commission track any appearances of CWD across the state. Contact the PGC for locations of these drop boxes.

The Commission is also using sharpshooters and other deer depopulation methods where CWD is prevalent to try to halt the disease. On one deer farm in Bedford County, in Disease Management Area 2, where the vast majority of CWD cases have been found, all 215 resident deer were tranquilized by the owners and then dispatched by USDA Wildlife Services personnel with .22 rifles. The owner was compensated for the deer, and each individual was examined for science’s sake. 27 of the 215 dead deer tested positive for CWD, a remarkable and scary number. Still, it was a sad day for those of us who appreciate deer.

And now, in southwestern Pa., even closer to home, we have a new threat called EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, that emerged in August in Beaver, Washington, and Allegheny Counties, and now possibly Greene County. EHD is caused by small biting midges that thrive in summer and die off with the first frost of fall. EHD is much more visible than CWD, and it appears to be faster-acting. It can cause a high number of deer deaths in a given year, but it does not linger in the environment nor cause long-term damage like CWD does.

And then there’s the question of possible harm to humans from consuming infected deer. Here’s the Game Commission’s official cover-your-butt answer to the question “Is CWD dangerous to humans?” – “There is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans . . . However, the Center for Disease Control reports that specific studies have begun that focus on identifying human prion disease in a population that is at increased risk for exposure to potentially CWD-infected deer or elk meat . . . many years of continued follow-up are required to be able to say what the risk, if any, of CWD is to humans.”

However, I just read in the Pa. Outdoor News about an article in a Milwaukee newspaper referencing the rise of a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a fatal condition in humans similar to CWD and related to mad cow disease) during the same year that CWD was discovered in Wisconsin. The article stated that, “In 2002, there were 260 cases, compared with 481 in 2015, an 85% increase, according to data from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiologists worry the sharp increases may be related to venison being eaten from deer with chronic wasting disease.”

It’s not time to panic yet, though. The possible dangers are speculative at this point. All we can do is stay informed and be careful. I’m not going to stop deer-hunting or venison-eating anytime soon.

Trail Notes: Mark your calendar for Saturday, Oct. 7th. Leana’s Books is sponsoring their annual Local Author Book Signing from 12:00 to 3:00 at the mall. I’ll be there looking for you to stop by, say hello, and share a story about the outdoors. Two of my books, the outdoors memoir “The F-Troop Camp Chronicles” and the humor book “Trucks Are Better Than Women” will be on sale at discount prices.

DON FEIGERT is the outdoors writer for The Herald, the Allied News, and the New Castle News. His latest book, The F-Troop Camp Chronicles, and his earlier books are available by contacting Don at 724-931-1699 or Browse his web site at Or visit Leana’s Books at the mall or in the Grove City Outlets.

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