As bow season opens tomorrow in Maryland and deer hunters elsewhere hit the woods this month, talk of venison steaks and antler racks is being overshadowed.
Hunters are asking each other nervous questions along the lines of, "What happens if Bambi goes bad?"
Chronic wasting disease, which attacks the brains of elk and some species of deer and kills the animals, has shown up in 10 states and two Canadian provinces. It has not been detected so far in Maryland or surrounding states.
State wildlife officials announced plans this week to increase the monitoring and testing of Maryland's deer population, which is estimated at 225,000. They also will step up hunter education efforts.
"There's no reason to panic," says Paul Peditto, wildlife director for the Department of Natural Resources. "If this thing comes to Maryland, we'll deal with it quickly. What we absolutely don't want is for people who read about the disease or hear we've had a positive test to stop hunting. That would be the inappropriate response."
Infected animals stagger, slobber and show little fear of humans. They gradually lose the ability to keep themselves alive.
Scientists have found no evidence that CWD can spread to humans or livestock. However, hunters are urged to use common sense and avoid taking a deer that appears sick. In the course of field dressing, they should wear gloves and discard parts such as the spine and brain.
Hunters are asked to report unhealthy deer to the DNR at 1-877-620-8367, ext 8540.
"It's on everyone's radar screens," says Steve Huettner, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association. "When there are more questions than answers, that's when people get worried."
Hunting chat rooms are filled with postings: "Will bleach disinfect my Buck knife and saw? If that doesn't, what will?" e-mailed one Western Maryland hunter. "Whoever thought we'd be worried about Bambi turning on us?"
CWD has baffled scientists over its ability to infect animals hundreds of miles apart, skipping over herds. No one is sure how it spreads or if it has the ability to mutate and infect other species.
The disease was first diagnosed in captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967. It is caused by a mutant protein called a prion that riddles the brains of deer and elk with microscopic lesions. A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, it is in the same family as "mad cow" disease, scrapie that affects sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which attacks humans.
The seeming random spread of CWD has prompted wildlife officials to take aggressive measures this year. About 20 states have banned the importation of live deer and elk.
Nebraska is negotiating with 25 elk ranchers to buy and kill their herds. Colorado is building two incinerators to dispose of diseased carcasses. In Wisconsin, 25,000 deer are being killed in a 360-square-mile area in which 18 infected deer where found, an action officials liken to the last stand at the Alamo.
As more states begin monitoring, the number of reported cases is likely to grow.
"Some states haven't had reports of CWD because they don't want to find it or they don't have the laboratories to run tests," says Dr. Charles Southwick, professor emeritus of environmental, population and organismic biology at the University of Colorado. "I think we're going to hear more about CWD after the fall hunting season."
Maryland has periodically tested deer since 1999. The last sampling, which involved six deer, occurred after a managed hunt last January.
But the sudden increase in reported cases has prompted state officials to expand the program in time for the start of the modern firearms season in November, Peditto says. Biologists will be at deer-check stations in Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Allegany and Washington counties - five jurisdictions that border Pennsylvania - to take brain stem tissue samples from 300 animals.
Maryland officials are concentrating their efforts to the north because captive herds are the major source of CWD, and Pennsylvania has about 800 licensed farms that raise deer and elk.
Such ranches are a $1 billion industry, according to the North American Deer Farmers Association. The animals are used for private hunting, meat and antler velvet, which is sold to Asian markets as a dietary supplement.
Maryland has few captive animals. State regulations approved in the mid-1980s effectively ban deer and elk ranching.
Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, says the state has increased monitoring this year.
In addition to testing all elk killed in the November lottery hunt as they did last year, biologists will spot-check 500 hunter-killed deer this year along with about 100 road-kill carcasses.
Inspectors visiting game farms during permit renewal time are conducting herd inventories and making sure the animals' owners complete forms to track buying and selling and cause of death.
Meat processors across Maryland say they'll be closely watching deer brought to their shops.
"Luckily, the symptoms make it easy to spot. They look sickly. We would know very quickly if there were a problem with the animal," says Bob Holsinger, who owns one of the largest shops in Maryland, just miles from the Pennsylvania border in Maugansville.
The key to finding the answer to CWD may be in state historical records, says Southwick, who was a professor of pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s and '70s. He has studied game reports that date back to the Civil War and has found descriptions of the deaths of large numbers of white-tailed, mule and sika deer that bear a "striking" resemblance to today's disease.
"Some cases are related to starvation or harsh conditions. But there are other cases that appear to be from an undiagnosed disease that results in loss of motor control, staggering and slobbering," he said.
"One report in Maryland on sika deer, the animals were described as wasted. The symptoms are so similar that it raises the question, 'Has this disease been present for over 150 years?' "
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