Chronic Wasting Disease, what Pennsylvania hunters should know ahead of firearms deer season

PENNSYLVANIA, Pa. (WTAJ) — As regular firearms deer season is set to begin across Pennsylvania on Saturday, Nov. 26, the state game commission is warning and informing hunters of an ongoing neurological illness that is killing members of the deer family.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been reported in at least 29 states in the US as well as two provinces in Canada, according to the CDC. The disease was first identified in a captive white-tailed deer facility in Adams County, Pennsylvania in 2012. 10 years later, CWD is being reported in captive and free-ranging deer across 14 counties in the state.

With hunters preparing to enter the state’s forests and game lands, here is where the disease is currently found and what is being done to combat the illness.

What is a Disease Management Area?

The Pennsylvania Game Commission as well as other state and federal agencies designate a Disease Management Area (DMA) where CWD has been found. The area is also used to help prevent its spread through regulations and testing.

In 2022, there are six active DMAs in the state and one established area where CWD has been permeating for an extended period of time, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

What hunters are restricted to do in a DMA

Hunters who plan to harvest a deer in a DMA will be prohibited to do the following activities:

  • Feeding wild deer: CWD can be spread through saliva. Animals congregating at an artificial feeding site increases the risk of spreading the disease.
  • Use or possess deer urine-based attractants for hunting: The urine could contaminate the environment or attract infected animals to the area.
  • Removing high-risk deer parts: Various body parts of a deer either harvested or killed, including vehicle accidents, cannot be removed from any DMA in the state or taken to any outside state or province. This is to prevent the disease from spreading to other Pennsylvania counties as well as other states.
Diagram of high-risk deer parts provided by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

More information about high-risk parts and other restrictions can be found on the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.

Where can hunters test their deer for CWD?

Hunters who harvest a deer in a DMA should have it tested for the illness. The head of the deer along with a completed harvest tag attached to its ear can be deposited in what the game commission calls a Head Collection Container. Dumpsters are also available in DMAs to dispose of any high-risk parts from a deer carcass.

Hunters will be notified when their deer has been submitted for testing and whether it tests positive for CWD. Testing usually takes 2 weeks, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The results of CWD testing can be found through an online Lookup Tool. A list of Head Collection Containers and High-Risk Parts Dumpsters that are located in DMAs can be found here.

Can CWD be transmitted to humans?

While the disease is not known to infect humans, the Pennsylvania Game Commission says it could still affect humans in other ways. People who eat venison from an infected deer can become ill. The game commission points to an incident of mad cow disease that occurred in England in 1992 due to tainted beef entering the food supply chain.

There’s currently no treatment, vaccine or cure for CWD. The CDC is currently studying if the disease could be a risk to humans.

Additional studies are under way to identify if any prion diseases could be occurring at a higher rate in people who are at increased risk for contact with potentially CWD-infected deer or elk meat. Because of the long time it takes before any symptoms of the disease appear, scientists expect the study to take many years before they will determine what the risk, if any, of CWD is to people.

Statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What should hunters do if they see a sick deer?

Anyone who harvests a sick deer can contact the game’s commission region office for more information.

Hunters who encounter a deer they suspect could be sick with CWD are asked to harvest if they have the opportunity and license. The Pennsylvania Game Commission encourages hunters to provide sick deer for testing. Hunters will be provided with a replacement harvest tag for any deer given to the game commission.