Deer farmers work to breed deer less susceptible to CWD

The PA Deer Farmers Association says it is working to be part of the solution for Chronic Wasting Disease.

“I’m super confident that farming community for deer will be a solution for Chronic Wasting Disease, ”Josh Newton, of Williamsport and president of the PA Deer Farmers Association, said in a telephone interview.

CWD is a neurological fatal disease that impacts deer and elk. It’s been in Pennsylvania since 2012 but has been in other midwestern states for more than 50 years.

On April 11, the Pennsylvania Game Commission announced the creation of a new Chronic Wasting Disease Management Area (DMA) and the expansion of two existing DMAs, partially because of positive cases found at private deer farms.

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A new DMA 7 was created when CWD recently was detected at a captive facility in Lycoming County. The newly established DMA includes portions of Lycoming, Northumberland, Montour, Columbia and Sullivan counties. The agency reports the DMA represents the fifth of seven DMAs to be created because of a captive deer facility.

DMA 4 also will expand following detection of CWD at a captive facility in southern Lancaster County. DMA 4’s expansion will follow the Susquehanna River south to the Maryland border and follow the Octoraro Creek north to where it meets the current boundary.

DMA 2 is expanding in two locations as a result of CWD detections in wild and captive deer. In the northeast corner of the DMA, a road-killed adult female deer was found on the current boundary, prompting expansion north along the West Branch Susquehanna River to Lewisburg and continuing west on Route 45 to meet the current boundary.

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The northcentral boundary of DMA 2 is changing due to a CWD detection at a captive facility and in a road-killed adult male deer. The DMA 2 boundary will expand north to Interstate 99/Route 322 to include the Rothrock State Forest and State College areas.

Newton said deer breeders are doing testing on all of their deer and that research will contribute to answers for the disease.

“The disease is here; we have to deal with it,” he said. “On the farm side, we deal with that pretty extensively.” There are programs for inventory purposes and animal tracking. They can track their animals from birth to death, which “can be a pretty big task.”

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Newton has been focusing on research work being done through Christopher Seabury at Texas A&M University regarding how genetics play a role on whether a deer is susceptible to CWD.

“Animals, deer, whitetail deer specifically, have a genetic effect that their genes are able to pass this disease on," Newton said. "Not that the animals pass it on, but genetics susceptibility of the disease is an inherent trait.”

With the aid of CWD genomic susceptibility testing, Newton said deer farmers/breeders are able to breed animals that have a lower susceptibility to the disease.

Also, through biopsies of tonsils or the rectum, he said they can detect CWD in a live deer. The cost is $60 to $100 per animal based on the quantity being done. The deer association started helping deer farmers by creating a cost share program that provides $50 a test or a total of $500 per farm to sample animals.

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“Today deer farms across Pennsylvania and the country are working at breakneck speeds to sample their herds, remove the high susceptibility animals and keep and breed the low susceptibility animals. We can’t move fast enough,” he said.

Newton said Texas officials have used similar technology to test 206,000 animals with the live test. The sensitivity of the test is to the point, he said, where it’s become an effective tool versus only having postmortem testing. Advances in technology could help to combat the disease, Newton said.

“We should continue to allow farm operations to manage their animals intensely like they are, keep doing genetic sampling, keep removing positives from the population," he said. "We are going to find way, way more positives in farm facilities because we are testing more. We have the mechanisms in place to control it. It’s not a politically tenable thing to find it in new areas, but that is going to happen because we’re testing for it and keep making (reproducing) animals that have low susceptibility to the disease.”

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In response to the organization's genetic efforts, Andrea Korman, Chronic Wasting Disease section supervisor for the PGC, said through an email, "We cannot speak to the captive industry’s efforts on selective breeding to address CWD. There are less susceptible genotypes, but those deer are not immune to CWD. They can still get CWD, and they will still die from CWD. There is no evidence of any deer having complete resistance to CWD.

"And while that type of breeding program may be applicable to a captive facility where breeding can be closely controlled, it is not possible to implement in a free-ranging population. Those genotypes are rare in the wild, and there is no way to control breeding in a free-ranging herd."

The Game Commission conducts testing on wild deer, but it’s a small percentage of the actual deer that are in Pennsylvania. Over the 2021-22 hunting seasons, the PGC tested 11,148 deer from harvests and road kills resulting in 240 positive cases. The agency reported hunters tagged an estimated 376,810 white-tailed deer during the past year’s hunting season.

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“There’s so many ways that this disease gets spread around,” Newton said, including hunters who move deer around on the backs of their trucks. He believes steps such as not moving high-risk parts of a deer out of a DMA are good, but they are not an answer to the problem. “It’s a just a management tool.”

In addition to deer passing CWD on to each other, Newton said, the disease can be transmitted to new areas from birds of prey, alfalfa hay that’s brought in from contaminated areas in western states, and small rodents named voles.

“We need to stop the blame game,” Newton said about who is causing the problem. “We test more; we are going to find the disease. Us (deer farmers) finding the disease, I know this sounds crazy, is a good thing. The programs are meant to find it in the early stages of the disease, as soon as possible, and then allow us to put proper protocols, management, containment, quarantines in place to stop it. We want to find it. That’s what the program is there for. It’s meant to find it and for us then to exterminate it from that area. That’s why we have a program.”

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: PA Deer Farmers Association looks at genetics in CWD battle