It’s been six months since deadly chronic wasting disease first reared its head in Pennsylvania. For the deer farmer in the eye of the storm, more questions than answers remain.
Ron Rutters raised 10 white-tailed deer in pens behind his home at 1491 New Chester Road, New Oxford. Of 1,100 deer propagators in the commonwealth, he was one of the smallest. Similar to raising livestock, the lucrative industry is regulated by the state Department of Agriculture.
There’s big money in trophy bucks, as most are sold to hunting preserves. A straw of semen can fetch $6,500 or more. A single trophy buck can command a half-million dollars. The profit margin has some cattlemen changing inventory.
Pennsylvania is now the second-largest producer of domestic cervids in the country. Chronic wasting disease has been the wolf knocking at the door for farmers and hunters who enjoy white-tailed deer in this state.
The disease was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and has been raging in Maryland and West Virginia. The disease attacks the brain and is always fatal to deer, elk or moose; its proteins or prions spread animal-to-animal or indirectly through soil. The animal becomes weak and emaciated. The disease is devastating when it flares up in the wild population. Once established, it cannot be eradicated, only controlled.
Rutters bought and bottle-fed female fawn “Yellow 903,” born on a farm in Lycoming County. The doe had two healthy fawns of her own the first year, then one last fall, which got Rutters’ attention.
“She lost some weight, but it wasn’t alarming,” Rutters said. “She wasn’t a big deer and nursing, and I thought it was just her going through pregnancy.”
Rutters and the veterinarian gave her vitamins.
“I petted her and she ate out of my hand,” Rutters said.
The deer died that night, last Sept. 17. The required brain samples were taken. “Yellow 903” tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
Then, in mid-October, the agriculture department quarantined 34 deer farms with suspected ties to Rutters’ operation. Four of those belonged to Ron or his son, Brian. Brian had 15 to 20 deer on three properties in the Dover area before he closed them down.
To monitor the wild population, the Pennsylvania Game Commission established a 400-square-mile disease management area — with an epicenter at New Oxford — to regulate and test deer harvested in the rifle season. They needed to know whether the disease had gotten outside the fence.
Rutters’ remaining nine deer had to be put down and tested. One of them, prized buck “Yellow 3,” turned up positive. While others were being put down, one of the does escaped through the fence and was in the wild until shot during hunting season. Her tests showed no sign of the disease.
Back-tracing the genealogy and movements of captive deer that may have been linked genetically or may have at least come in contact with the first positive doe is like catching bubbles in a windstorm.
Logically, the suspected parents of “Yellow 903” were killed — the buck in a hunting preserve and the mother put down — and tested. Not only did their tests show no trace of the disease; their samples didn’t match the recorded pedigree.
At this point, “Yellow 903’s” family history remains in question.
From the beginning, Rutters wasn’t convinced that the positive sample came from his deer. He said this week that he intends to do his own testing to see if his “Yellow 903” hair sample matches that used by the agriculture department.
L.C. Bucher, the department’s press spokesman, said five samples were tested and none matched the written records. She said sample integrity is a department priority, as is a proven chain of custody.
Rutters says we may never know how “Yellow 903” got the disease. He suggests the farmer could have tagged the wrong fawn when she was born.
“People (including the agriculture department) make mistakes,” Rutters said. No farmer, Rutters included, wants a chronic wasting disease label.
The list of quarantined farms has since dwindled to eight. The disease was not detected in any of the 2,000 samples taken from deer harvested by hunters within the DMA during hunting season.
Last month, the game commission announced that three deer killed in hunting season — one in Bedford County and two in Blair County – tested positive for the disease in the wild. Bucher said the outbreak most likely originated from Maryland, where the disease is present in the wild 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border, not through contact with captive deer.
The commission on March 25 established a second disease management area to include portions of Bedford, Blair, Cambria and Huntingdon counties.
Back at “ground zero,” Ron Rutters is still looking for answers.
Did the first positive test for the disease really come from his deer? If so, where did she get it? If not, his small herd was eliminated for no good reason. The state agriculture department said it doesn’t have funds to reimburse him.
In the meantime, Rutters checks the three wire pens in his backyard, quiet now. The 63-year-old knows the whole story may never come out.
He could re-introduce whitetails to his property in five years, or raise the less-lucrative fallow or axis deer, or reindeer now. They aren’t susceptible to the disease.
Biologists knew the discovery of chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania was only matter of where and when. It is so active so close to the southern border.
Rutters’ small deer farm was a target of happenstance. Sad and mad, he knows 1491 New Chester Road, New Oxford may never overcome being Pennsylvania’s “ground zero” for chronic wasting disease. He said the place is finished and that he may have to sell and move on.
“I could almost bawl,” he said.