A deadly brain disorder affecting deer, moose and elk is on the region’s doorstep, and its spread could be impossible to stop.
Chronic wasting disease, a progressive condition that can remain idle for years before killing the infected animal, has been found in deer 25 miles from the Shenandoah National Park’s northern border, said park biologist Rolf Gubler. The park stretches northeast from outside Waynesboro to Front Royal.
Experts say there is no evidence that chronic wasting can be transmitted to humans. But its effect on deer, as well as moose and elk, is devastating -- symptoms include dramatic weight loss, tremors and teeth-grinding -- and the disease is incurable.
Park officials held meetings on chronic wasting earlier this spring in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Washington, and they are working on a plan to contain the infection. That could include thinning the heaviest populations of whitetail deer in the park.
“We could theoretically use sharpshooters ... but that hasn’t been done yet," Gubler said.
Big Meadows, in the park’s central area, is dense with deer, Superintendent Jim Northup said. Park officials also plan to be more active in the surveillance and detection of the disease.
Halting it could be difficult. Deer in Frederick and Shenandoah counties have been quarantined, but as the disease spreads slowly, it is nearly impossible to contain and even harder to track, said Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
"The disease is very likely to come out of that quarantine area," he said. "There has been no effective strategy in the United States to contain the disease."
The history of the disease traces to 1967, when a degenerative condition "of unknown cause" was identified in captive mule deer at a research facility in Colorado, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pens at the facility previously held sheep suffering from scrapie, another degenerative disease spread through a protein and affecting the nervous system, Clark said. Scrapie lay in the soil for years after the sheep were gone, and eventually infected deer, Clark said.
"They housed some mule deer in the pens, and lo and behold, it did something that is very, very rare, which we call jumping the species barrier," Clark said. "From there, it got into the deer and got out."
Chronic wasting long was thought to be contained in Colorado and Wyoming. But it has been found in free-ranging deer, elk or moose in more than a dozen additional states, including Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
Like scrapie, chronic wasting disease is spread by a protein, rather than a virus or bacteria. It bores holes in the brain, causing infected animals to drool, stumble and waste away as they lose control of bodily functions. Nobody is sure exactly how long the disease takes to kill, Gubler said.
"A deer will look fairly normal for one to four years. Then it will start to look emaciated and have a wide stance and ear droop," he said. "By then, you're talking six months to a year or less."
Clark blames commercial deer farms for the spread of the disease. Those farms are illegal in Virginia. A 2001 statute prohibits the construction of fences to confine deer.
"Almost without exception, the states that have had the biggest outbreaks are the states that allow deer farming," Clark said.
Veterinarian Glen Zebarth, a member of the North American Elk Breeders Association, disputed the connection between chronic wasting’s spread and deer farming.
"It didn't show up in the farmed [deer] populations until ," Zebarth said.
As the disease has inched east, researchers and game officials have scrambled to monitor and arrest its steady spread. Pennsylvania, like many states, has been conducting random sampling at deer processing centers. Game officials there announced earlier this spring that three deer killed in the state last year had tested positive for the disease.
Hunters in Frederick and Shenandoah counties can have their deer tested at game-checking stations. Deer killed in those areas must be dressed and deboned before being hauled out of the county, Clark said. Removal of the spinal cord is critical because the protein that spreads chronic wasting can lie in brain tissue and spinal fluid.
(Waynesboro) News Virginian staff writer Bob Stuart contributed to this story.