By: Mike Bleech of the Erie Times-News

Since being discovered in a captive mule deer at a Colorado laboratory in the late 1960s, Chronic Wasting Disease has spread to several states and Canadian provinces, as well as overseas. CWD threatens most cervid populations in North America, including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. Most, if not all, states and provinces where it has been detected have enacted legislation and adopted regulations to prevent its spread.

Now help might be coming in the form of federal legislation to combat CWD on the national level.

Congressman Ron Kind, WI, and Congressman Jamie Sensenbrenner, WI, introduced on Nov. 21 the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act (H.R. 4454). This bipartisan legislation would support state and tribal efforts to develop and implement strategies for dealing with CWD. Also it would support research efforts into causes of CWD, and methods for controlling further spread of the disease.

It was referred to the Committee on Agriculture and to the Committee on Natural Resources, which referred it on Nov. 29 to the Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

Why Committee on Federal Lands but not to Committee on Natural Resources where it would seem to belong? Isn’t that passing the buck? (There’s a bad joke in that.)

Diverting funds to deal with CWD is adversely affecting other wildlife programs that were already stretched thin. This bill would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to authorize $35 million to state and tribal wildlife agencies, and agriculture agencies, to implement CWD management strategies. Grants would become available to entities involved in CWD research. Land management agencies in the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior would work collaboratively with state agencies to address the spread of CWD.

CWD belongs with a group of neurodegenerative disorders that includes Mad Cow Disease that are caused by prions. Prions are infected proteins. Once it has been detected clinically in a cervid, it is always fatal.

CWD has a disheartening capacity for rapid spread. It can be spread directly from animal to animal. It appears that this disease is spread from cervid to cervid, perhaps through feces, urine or saliva. It might be spread from mother to fawn. It can be spread in the habitat for a couple of years after infection.

CWD has been detected in either wild herds or captive herds in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and New York. In additions, it has been found in Canada — Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Wild herds are infected in 21 states. This is a growing list.

Between 2004 and 2010, South Korea reported CWD in captive herds. Those animals had been imported from Canada. Also in South Korea, varieties of Sika deer and red deer in a captive facility contracted CWD from elk. Norway reported CWD in 2016.

Symptoms of CWD generally affect behavior. Potential signs are excessive drinking and urinating, a blank stare, repetitive walking, less interaction with other animals, weak appearance and lowered head. The animal probably will be thin. None of these can be considered conclusive evidence of CWD since other disorders may have the same symptoms.

Currently there is no way to test live deer for CWD. Testing requires examination of the brain, tonsils or lymph nodes after death.

Here in Pennsylvania an executive order directed the Game Commission to establish Disease Management Areas where CWD has been detected. DMA 1 is in Adams County where CWD was detected in 2012 at a captive deer farm. This has since been eliminated. DMA 2 was established where CWD infected deer were detected in wild populations in Bedford, Blair, Cambria and Fulton counties from 2012 to 2017, and at captive deer herds in Bedford, Franklin and Fulton counties in 2017.

And getting much too close to the northwestern counties, DMA 3 was established after CWD was detected in a captive deer herd in Jefferson County during 2014, as well as when free-ranging deer were detected with CWD in Clearfield County in 2017.

I would like to urge federal lawmakers to quickly pass the Chronic Wasting Disease Management Act. This could be the salvation of an industry that is important to the budgets of the states and provinces where CWD occurs, to states threatened by it, and to the cherished American traditions of hunting and wildlife watching. This is particularly important to rural communities that depend on income from wildlife tourism.