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Pair on frontlines of Chronic Wasting Disease reconnaissance

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry A sign encourages hunters who take deer in and around Disease Management Area (DMA) 5 in Warren County to remove the heads of those deer and put them in a collection bin. Eight bins are located throughout DMA 5.

When someone puts the head of a deer in a bag and the bag in a deer head collection bin in Warren County, there are two men who get to deal with it and they appreciate the effort.

Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Biologist aides Luke Gray and Matthew O’Neill are on the front lines of Chronic Wasting Disease reconnaissance in the county.

They work out of a small, Amish-built shed behind the PennDOT facility on Conewango Avenue Extension near Hatch Run Road.

Their primary responsibilities include collecting deer heads, cataloging the details of each deer, cutting the occipital lymph nodes out, packaging the nodes up and shipping them off to Philadelphia for testing.

They also have the job of spreading the word about testing opportunities. “Information about DMA 5 didn’t make it into the (Game Commission’s Hunting and Trapping) Digest,” O’Neill said. “We’re trying to get the word out.”

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Biologist Aides (left) Luke Gray and Matthew O’Neill carry bags containing deer heads from a truck to their work space where they will remove lymph nodes to be tested for chronic wasting disease.

Their goal is to help prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

A disease management area (DMA) was set up in Warren County this year after a positive case was identified.

So far, Gray and O’Neill have taken samples from 119 deer. The samples come from deer taken by hunters and from road-kills. Gray and O’Neill are hunters. But they are not shooting any deer at work. “Our purpose is strictly surveillance and monitoring,” O’Neill said.

Other hunters are seeing more opportunities because of the disease. The commission has issued additional tags for deer in the DMA in the hopes of receiving more samples.

“We’d like to sample a lot of deer,” O’Neill said.

More testing means having a better idea of whether CWD is spreading in the county or if there was an isolated incident.

So far, the 119 samples have all come back negative.

There are eight deer head collection bins around the DMA. The locations — with GPS coordinates — are: 4100 Conewango Ave. Warren (41.989, -79.1253); 6962 Scandia Road, Russell (41.8966, -79.1381); Keller Road, Conewango Township (41.9349, -79.0124); 195 Creek Road, Sugar Grove (41.9861, -79.2976); Webbs Ferry Road at Scandia Road (41.9936, -79.968); 8336 Jackson Run Road, Sugar Grove (41.9253, -79.287); and 2420 Cobham Park Road, Warren (41.851, -79.0924).

Bags are provided at the bins.

Hunters who take deer in and around the DMA are encouraged, but not required, to cut off the heads – with a few inches of neck, bag them, and leave them in the bins for testing. Those hunters should keep a copy of their tag with the body of the animal. The original tag must be attached to and left with the head.

The occipital lymph nodes are located in the neck – “about four inches from the jaw,” Gray said.

“If somebody shoots a deer and they want to keep the antlers…” that’s no problem, Gray said. Hunters may remove the antlers or the “skull cap” and leave the rest of the head in the bin.

For those hunters interested in having the whole deer or the head and neck mounted, they don’t have to do anything special to have the deer tested. “Taxidermists from the DMA will contact us,” he said.

The aides travel around the DMA every weekday, collecting the heads that have been left in the bins. They bring those back to the shed.

PennDOT dispatchers let them know where they can find road-kill deer in the DMA and they collect those.

They take the heads into the shed — “the road-kills we usually leave outside,” O’Neill said — and locate and remove both lymph nodes. If the nodes are damaged, they still submit them for testing. They record information about each deer including sex, age, location, and cause of death. The aides determine the approximate ages of the deer from examining the teeth.

Each sample is placed in a bag with a pre-printed bar-code. The bar code is scanned and the information about the deer attached to that file. When the sample arrives at the testing facility, information about the deer is already there. And, Gray and O’Neill have the original files on-location in case anything is lost.

There has been one confirmed case of CWD in Warren County.

There are no known cases of humans contracting chronic wasting disease from eating infected deer meat.

“We recommend you get it tested and wait until you get the results,” O’Neill said.

For those who would pay for processing of their DMA deer, the aides recommend freezing it and waiting for the test results.

“Hold off on taking your deer to a butcher,” Gray said.

Test results are typically back in about a week.

If the testing turns up a positive result, the commission will issue a new tag to the hunter, O’Neill said.

The disease is not known to spread to humans, but it is “very good at spreading” among deer, O’Neill said.

Deer spread the disease by direct contact with bodily fluids.

It can also spread to deer that come in contact with it anywhere an infected deer’s body fluids have been. “It can stay up to 10 years in the environment,” Gray said.

“They’ve even tried to burn it,” O’Neill said.

It takes sustained temperature of about 600 degrees to destroy CWD that way, Gray said.

Bleach is the reliable way to destroy the CWD prion – “a mis-folded protein that causes mutations,” O’Neill said.

That protein is always fatal to the deer and affects all North American deer species – including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and moose.

Gray and O’Neill are not trying to discourage anyone from hunting. On the contrary, the more deer are harvested by hunters, the more opportunity they have to provide samples to the laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“The more the better for us,” O’Neill said.

“We want it to be safe for the hunters and beneficial for the deer population,” Gray said.

They do have some special personal protective equipment.

Whoever is cutting out the lymph nodes dons plastic gloves with sleeves past the elbow.

And, they have Tyvek suits for when the work is heavy.

They expect to get more work very soon.

The rifle deer season opens this weekend. “Come rifle season, we expect to be doing a couple dozen a day or more,” Gray said.

“It’s not the most glamorous work,” O’Neill said.

They are both hunters and have degrees in biology, so they are accustomed to dealing with body parts and dissection.

But, they still welcome colder weather — which “helps with the smell and the ticks,” O’Neill said.

“You do have to have a pretty strong stomach,” O’Neill said.

Someone will be collecting samples from deer in DMA 5 year-round for at least five years — “five years from the last positive test,” Gray said.

For most of the year, the samples will come from road-kills.

That’s not enough work day-to-day.

“We assist the biologists,” O’Neill said.

He recently worked at a bear check station.

They help with the banding of waterfowl and do landowner consultations.

“Our region is really good about getting people exposed to all kinds of work,” O’Neill said. “It’s really fun.”

A day-to-day spent surrounded by the heads of deer looking for CWD “is an important job,” he said. “It’s becoming a pretty widespread issue across all of North America.”

But, “it is nice to change up,” he said.

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