Three more deer in the West Virginia county that borders Maryland have tested positive for a fatal disease responsible for the deaths of thousands of deer and elk in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.
Game officials in West Virginia recently tested 101 deer for chronic wasting disease in Hampshire County, just south of Maryland's Allegany County, as part of a continuing surveillance program initiated after 10 deer within a dozen miles of the state border tested positive in September 2005.
Maryland officials were notified late Friday of the additional CWD cases, said Bob Beyer, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Department of Natural Resources.
"The infected deer were still within the containment area," he said. "We put the word out to our people in the field. We have our ears to the ground."
CWD is a neurological disease caused by a mutant protein called a prion. It is in the same family as mad cow disease, scrapie, which affects sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which attacks humans.
The prion riddles the brains of deer and elk with microscopic lesions. When the animals become infected, they stagger, slobber and show little fear of humans. They gradually lose the ability to care for themselves.
The first case was detected in Colorado in 1967 and spread east, reaching Wisconsin in 2002. It baffled biologists when it jumped the Mississippi River and infected deer in Illinois. Then two years ago, CWD was detected first in upstate New York and then West Virginia.
Paul Johansen, biologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, said the new CWD cases didn't surprise him, given how the disease has spread the past five years.
He said officials have liberalized the deer hunting season in Hampshire County in hopes of lowering the population density and the potential to spread CWD. In addition, they have prohibited feeding wild deer and put restrictions on transporting carcasses to lower the risk of moving the disease.
Maryland, which has a population of about 265,000 deer, tests hundreds of bucks and does every hunting season, with biologists and veterinarians taking brain stem samples at taxidermy shops. Officials also have taken steps to eliminate captive deer herds, penned, domesticated animals considered one of the primary entry points and spreaders of the disease.
Beyer said the state is down to 15 permit holders who own a total of 200 deer and is working to further reduce the number. Late last month, DNR removed three deer from a Severn farm.
"We don't like doing it, but it's something we have to do for the sake of the health of the entire [deer] population," he said.