Link between antler restrictions and CWD spread more myth than fact

Posted on: February 14, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Chronic wasting disease continues to spread in Pennsylvania.

Hunters are paying the price in many ways. But having to sacrifice the chance at bigger-racked deer won’t be one of them.

At least not yet.

There’s no evidence – from Pennsylvania or anywhere else — that eliminating antler restrictions would stop or even slow the creep of wasting disease across the landscape, said Chris Rosenberry, head of the Game Commission’s deer and elk section.

At the same time, they’re hugely popular with hunters. A 2014 survey of deer hunters found they support antler restrictions by a 3-to-1 margin.

So don’t expect biologists to suggest doing away with them any time soon.

“Given this level of satisfaction with antler point restrictions, we as managers should have a good justification if we’re going to make a change. For example, if we have good evidence that removing antler point restrictions will have a noticeable, positive effect on CWD management, then we would recommend such a change,” Rosenberry said.

“At this point, without good evidence, we have not made that recommendation.”

Commission board members asked Rosenberry to address the issue because some hunters – a small but vocal minority, some believe – have been lobbying for an end to antler restrictions for the sake of deer herd health.

The thinking is that it’s young deer moving around on the landscape that are spreading wasting disease.

It’s true young deer “disperse,” Rosenberry said. Fifty to 70 percent of yearling bucks – those 18 months old or younger – leave the area where they were born. They travel five miles, on average, before setting up a new home range.

About 30 percent of them take that journey between April and July. The rest take off in late summer, after their first set of antlers hardens, he noted.

That, he added, is too early for hunting to do any good.

Archers don’t hit the woods in most of the state until October. Harvests start slow, then gradually pick up steam. Finally, it’s during the firearms deer season, after Thanksgiving, when the majority of the buck harvest takes place.

Bucks have already finished moving by then.

“In terms of timing, dispersal is essentially completed when most of our antlered bucks are being harvested. And if reducing dispersal is the goal, the bucks need to be removed before they grow that first set of antlers,” Rosenberry said.

“And that can only occur with antlerless harvests.”

That’s not to say the hunting seasons in their current form aren’t helping to contain wasting disease.

Surveys done in other states show that – to control wasting disease as best is possible – buck harvests should remove at least 30 percent of the antlered deer in a population annually. And that harvest should occur largely after the rut.

Pennsylvania deer seasons check both of those boxes, Rosenberry said. They are “adequate for CWD management” as a result.

He pointed out, too, that yearling bucks only account for 20 percent of the deer population at the close of hunting seasons. Females are 50 percent of what’s left. Juveniles – buck and doe fawns – are another 20 percent.

That’s noteworthy, Rosenberry said.

“As a result, if we removed every antlered deer each year, we would still have 75 percent of the population capable of perpetuating the spread of CWD to new areas,” he noted.

It’s understandable that hunters are looking for answers, said commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County. Chronic wasting disease is not only insidious, but confounding.

“It’s frustrating, isn’t it? There are no absolute answers when it comes to CWD,” he said.

There’s nothing to suggest that subpopulations of deer in different areas of Pennsylvania are different enough to ward off wasting disease either.

Commission Jim Daley of Butler County asked if that might be true, and if it might have implications for Pennsylvania.

But Rosenberry said all deer that contract wasting disease die. Some may live longer than others, but all perish.

The difference in survival periods isn’t significant enough to impact management, he added.

So for now, antler restrictions are staying. There’s no reason to suggest otherwise, Rosenberry said.

But nothing’s written in stone, either.

“Given the serious nature of CWD, we will continue our evaluations of antler point restrictions as new information becomes available,” he said.

Wasting disease spreads again

Wasting disease is becoming more common across Pennsylvania.

So far, 55 wild deer – killed by hunters, collected as roadkills or shot because they exhibited signs of the illness – have tested positive for the disease, said commission spokesman Travis Lau.

That number – already a record — could grow. The commission is still awaiting test results on additional animals.

That brings to roughly 100 the number of CWD-positive wild deer discovered in Pennsylvania since 2012, when it first arrived on the landscape.

The bigger news, though, is that wasting disease is now in a new area of the state.

The Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture this week announced the discovery of CWD-positive deer on two captive facilities.

One is a shooting preserve in Bedford County. It is located within the existing disease management area 2, an area of the state managed under certain restrictions.

All deer feeding is banned there, for example. Hunters can’t use natural deer urines either, or take “high risk” deer parts beyond its orders. That necessitates having deer butchered and, in the case of those with big antlers, mounted, within the disease area.

The other CWD-positive captive deer found was on a deer breeding facility in Lancaster County.

That’s outside the boundaries of any disease area. That will necessitate creation of a new one.

“Yes, we’re working on one now,” said commission spokesman Travis Lau.

Details on its exact location are likely before the end of the month, he added.

In the meantime, both the Bedford and Lancaster county deer farms are under quarantine, according to Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers. Deer cannot be moved on or off these properties without permission from the department.

These latest discoveries bring the number of captive-bred deer with CWD in Pennsylvania to 46.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.