More and more CWD-positive deer are popping up in Pennsylvania each year.
For more than half a decade now, the news is always bad, always worse than what was known just a few months before.
Since being discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012, chronic wasting disease has continually spread. It infects more deer, in more places, every year.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission detected the disease in a record 78 deer in 2017. By comparison, the number of CWD-positive wild deer – total – discovered between 2012 and 2016 was 47.
Seventy-five of the sick deer discovered last year were in disease management area 2. In 2016, it produced 25.
What’s more, for the first time ever, hunter-killed deer accounted for the greatest percentage of sick whitetails. Previously, it was roadkills.
The disease is spreading on captive deer farms, too.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture announced last week that two sick deer were found on a small “hobby” farm in Greenfield Township, Blair County. They’re the first captive deer in Blair to pop up positive.
Meanwhile, in “depopulating” the first-ever Lancaster County farm to have CWD-positive deer, it found yet another sick animal.
So yeah, all bad news, all the time.
The question, then, is this: with the state’s $1 billion hunting industry on the line, is the state legislature going to do something? Anything?
That’s what at least one Game Commissioner is wondering.
“When is the legislature going to wake up?” asked commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County. “
“We can’t be the only ones angry about this situation. So what’s it take to get the legislature to understand that they’re in charge of the problem? And if they’re not strong enough, or strong-willed enough, to fix the problem, then it will never be fixed and what we do doesn’t mean a damn thing. That’s what it comes down to.”
Lawmakers are at least going to talk about the issue.
The state House of Representatives game and fisheries committee is holding a public hearing on chronic wasting disease in Harrisburg on Thursday.
No agenda is available.
But one lawmaker is looking at how the Game Commission – responsible for wild deer — and Department of Agriculture – responsible for farm deer — can best work together to combat the disease.
State Rep. Bryan Barbin, a Cambria County Democrat and minority chairman of the game and fisheries committee, sponsored House Bill 2422. It would allow the Game Commission “to work with” Agriculture to “provide for a more effective response to the disease.”
The bill doesn’t spell out how that’s to occur, though. Nor does it mention anything about funding for testing, surveillance, law enforcement or anything else.
It’s in front of the House agricultural affairs committee, but not yet scheduled for debate.
Locations of sick deer
So, in the meantime, the bad news just keeps rolling in.
And now, the standard response to sick deer may be in danger of becoming obsolete.
There are three disease management areas in Pennsylvania: DMA 2, 3 and 4.
Numbers 2 and 3 both had wild deer test positive for the disease this past year.
In DMA 3’s case, one was a suspect animal shot by a game warden on state game land 87 in Clearfield County.
Two others were subsequently taken by hunters. One was shot 15 miles away, in the disease area’s extreme northwest corner, the other seven miles away in the opposite direction, in the extreme southeast corner.
“That’s troubling to me because it doesn’t suggest that you have an infection growing out from a single source point,” Laroche said.
In DMA 2, hunters accounted for 43 sick deer, road kills 26 more. The others were suspect animals shot for testing.
One was especially suspicious, Laroche said. It turned up on a ridge near the Tuscarora Mountain tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s the first CWD-positive wild deer found in that area, he said.
But, nearby are three deer farms under quarantine for connections to other facilities with sick deer, he said.
That “flier,” along with the two far-flung sick deer in disease area 3, means both disease areas will likely have to grow, Laroche said.
Just too big
That’s almost as much problem as solution anymore, though.
At some point, those areas just become too big, Laroche said.
Rules in disease areas restrict certain things, like deer feeding and the use or urines for hunting. It’s also illegal to move high-risk parts – spinal columns, lymph nodes, antlers and skull plates with brain matter attached – outside the disease area.
“But you figure, if the whole state was a DMA, that’s the same as having no DMA, in terms of high-risk parts movement,” Laroche said.
In disease area 2, for example, right now hunters can’t move high-risk deer parts to the Tuscarora Mountain area. If the commission expands the area in that direction based on the one suspicious deer found, though, they’ll be able to.
And that, Laroche said, means they could be spreading the disease to an area where it’s not yet in the wild herd.
If the commission doesn’t expand the area, though, and that one sick deer is just one of several, the disease will spread anyway, he added.
“So we’ve got risk factors on both sides. But right now we don’t have too many options in terms of picking and choosing amongst them,” Laroche said.
“It just becomes frustrating,” said commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County.
So when will someone do something?