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Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

Chronic Wasting Disease is a neurological disease that affects members of the cervid family (deer, elk, moose, and reindeer/caribou). Like mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, it's caused not by a virus or bacteria, but by abnormal prions, or proteins.

Those altered prions kill brain cells and ultimately lead to tiny holes in the brains of infected animals. Those impacts are not immediately visible. CWD-infected animals might not show symptoms of the disease for 18 to 24 months. But all white-tailed deer and elk that contract CWD die. There are no exceptions.

Infectious CWD prion are shed in saliva, urine, and feces. Therefore, animals can be infected via animal-to-animal contact or through contaminated environments.

CWD in Pennsylvania

CWD was first found in Pennsylvania in captive deer in October of 2012, and in wild, free-ranging whitetails in early 2013. Brochure (PDF)

CWD has since spread from those initial detection sites over a larger geographic area. Testing has detected the disease in all or parts of Adams, Armstrong, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Indiana, Jefferson, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder, Somerset, Union, Warren, and Westmoreland counties.

CWD Management

CWD is a serious and persistent threat to deer and elk across much of North America. And dealing with it will not be easy. There are many challenges involved in dealing with this disease, ranging from managing CWD in the face of political opposition to reaching a largely disengaged hunting community.

Managing CWD in Pennsylvania is going to require a long-term commitment from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its wildlife partners, including hunters and wildlife watchers. A CWD Response Plan developed in cooperation with stakeholders and experts from around the country,  outlines Pennsylvania's plan to meet that challenge going forward.

CWD and Disease Management Areas (DMAs)

Following the detection of CWD in both captive and free-ranging deer in Pennsylvania, an executive order (PDF) was issued by the Game Commission establishing Disease Management Areas (DMAs). Within DMAs, rehabilitation of cervids (deer, elk and moose); the use or possession of cervid urine-based attractants in an outdoor setting; the removal of high-risk cervid parts; and the feeding of wild, free-ranging cervids are prohibited. Increased testing continues in these areas to determine the distribution of the disease.

The Game Commission has four Disease Management Areas (DMAs) – DMA 2, 3, 4 and 5 – across the state. (DMA 1, formed after discovery of a CWD-positive deer on a captive deer farm in Adams County in 2012 (PDF), was dissolved after five years without detecting any new CWD cases there.)

Regulations meant to slow or stop the human-assisted spread of CWD across the landscape apply to all DMAs. It's illegal within DMAs to rehabilitate injured deer, possess or use cervid urine-based attractants, remove high-risk parts and feed free-ranging deer.

The boundaries of DMAs can change year to year, based on the location of CWD-infected animals discovered through testing. Current boundaries for 2021-22 are as follows:

DMA 2 was established in 2012 and now covers approximately 7,744 square miles, an expansion of 274 square miles since 2020. For 2021 it expanded west into Dauphin and Northumberland counties as the result of new CWD-positive detections. DMA 2 currently includes all or parts of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Indiana, Juniata, Mifflin, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder, Somerset, Union, and Westmoreland counties.

DMA 3 (PDF) was established in 2014 and now covers approximately 1,233 square miles. For 2021 there is no change to the DMA 3 boundary. DMA 3 now covers portions of Armstrong, Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana, and Jefferson counties.

DMA 4 was established in 2018 and now covers approximately 746 square miles. For 2021 there is no change to the DMA 4 boundary. It covers portions of Berks, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties.

DMA 5 was established in 2021 after a CWD-positive was detected in a captive facility in Warren County. DMA 5 covers 212 square miles and lies completely within Warren County.

CWD and Hunting

Hunters play a vital role in this management action. The Game Commission gives hunters expanded opportunities to harvest deer in DMAs.

For the 2021-22 hunting seasons, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is offering Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits for nine Enhanced Surveillance Units. The permits allow hunters to take antlerless deer during the 2021-22 hunting seasons. Permits will become available with general license sales on June 14.

The purpose of these units is to increase harvest and surveillance in these areas. Successful hunters can submit the heads from those animals for CWD testing to assess the extent of the disease in these areas. The units are located around new CWD detections at the leading edge of disease expansion or in new areas far from other CWD detections.

The Challenge of Managing CWD

Pennsylvania, like more than half of the other states in the country, is facing the challenge of slowing the spread of CWD in wild deer. In this National Deer Association video, you will hear from CWD experts and sportsmen from Wisconsin who have seen and continue to face the issues caused by the disease since it was first detected in the Badger State in 2002. They talk about the challenges of managing CWD in the face of political opposition and a largely disengaged hunting community, and provide suggestions and encouragement to Pennsylvanians as wildlife professionals and hunters in the Commonwealth begin to tread similar waters.

CWD in Pennsylvania

For Taxidermists & Processors

If you are presented with a deer or elk harvested in CWD-infected areas, please contact the nearest Game Commission region office for guidance. Additional information is available for processors (PDF) and taxidermists (PDF).

CWD in Pennsylvania

Videos and Podcasts

CWD and Captive Deer

The Game Commission is responsible for managing CWD in wild deer and elk. Management of captive deer, elk and other cervids is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

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