Chronic wasting disease continues to spread across Pennsylvania.
Photo: Wiki COmmons
It’s all about speed when it comes to controlling chronic wasting disease.
And yet, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is delaying release of its disease management plan.
That’s by design, said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the agency. The new plan was due out this month, but he didn’t feel like it was ready. Instead, the commission is releasing it at a later, to-be-determined, date.
It’s a matter or risk versus reward, he said.
The commission gets “one shot” at gaining public acceptance for its plan, he added. He doesn’t want the commission to swing and miss.
“We know that if we don’t have hunter support, legislative support, for our efforts we will fail,” Burhans said.
That became clear last fall.
Then, the commission planned to remove thousands of deer from disease management area 2 in southcentral Pennsylvania. That’s ground zero for the disease.
Of the 250 free-ranging whitetails confirmed to have CWD in Pennsylvania since 2012, 91 percent have come from three counties there: Bedford (122), Fulton (66) and Blair (41).
The idea was to reduce deer densities in the disease area – using sharpshooters as well as hunters – while simultaneously putting GPS collars on deer to track things like their spread, movement and more.
Public backlash from hunters and lawmakers killed that, though.
Burhans doesn’t want to the commission to falter again, hence the change in the plan’s release.
“We’ve got to take our time to make sure that we engage our hunters because they’re our most important ally in this battle against chronic wasting disease,” he said.
In the meantime, the disease continues to spread.
Two of the state’s disease management areas – places with CWD, where special rules govern how hunters can hunt and what they can do with deer they harvest – are expanding. Disease management area 2 in particular is growing by about 2,000 square miles.
On its western edge, it’s moving into additional parts of Cambria and Somerset counties, and moving for the first time into portions of Indiana and Westmoreland counties.
It’s what happened on its eastern edge that is most troubling, however.
Courtney Colley, the commission’s CWD communications specialist, said it found two sick free-ranging deer there, one in Juniata County, another in Perry. Both were 20 miles from the closest previous CWD-infected deer.
That’s troubling enough. But Colley said two other things make those cases concerning.
One, both were adults. And two, the Juniata County in particular was already exhibiting clinical signs of the disease when found.
“Because the incubation period for chronic wasting disease is 18 to 24 months, it is most likely that those deer have been shedding the prion (that causes the disease) in the environment in that area for months, and there is the possibility that other deer in the area are probably infected,” she said.
“So those are of special concern to us.”
Science suggests that when wasting disease reaches a certain point in a population, bad things happen. One study in the West found that mule deer numbers dropped by 19 percent one year after wasting disease infected a herd.
In Wisconsin, Colley said, preliminary results from another study suggest whitetail numbers drop by 75 percent in one year post introduction of disease.
There have been some success stories in dealing with CWD, though, she said.
The disease first popped up in New York in 2005. Hunters and sharpshooters killed about 400 deer within three weeks of that discovery.
As a result, wildlife officials haven’t found wasting disease anywhere in that state since, Colley said.
Illinois and Minnesota, meanwhile, found the disease in 2002 and 2010, respectively. They launched immediate efforts to increase hunter harvest while simultaneously using sharpshooters to kill additional deer, she said.
They haven’t eliminated the disease. But they’ve kept prevalence rates down, she added.
Wisconsin, by comparison, stopping deer herd reduction efforts in 2007. West Virginia never instituted any at all.
And in those states, CWD prevalence rates are topping 25 percent in some areas.
She’s hopeful Pennsylvania will write success stories more similar to those authored by states continually working at controlling the disease, she said. But that will take public support, she added.
“Ultimately, hunters are our first line of defense against chronic wasting disease,” Colley said.
So the commission will do some statewide human dimensions research to see how much the public knows about and understands chronic wasting disease. It will also attempt to figure out how far hunters and the public are and aren’t willing to go to control it, Colley said.
It will also hold public meetings in various areas with the disease.
The hope is that, if everyone comes together, the best results are possible, Burhans said.
But he warned that even then there will be no return to the old days, when disease was not an issue for white-tailed deer.
“Two things we’ve got to know about chronic wasting disease. Number one, we’ll never eradicate it. Number two, we’ll never stop the spread,” Burhans said.
“All we can hope to do is keep the prevalence rate down to a reasonable level and slow the spread as much as possible.”
Tracking the spread of chronic wasting disease
Chronic wasting disease is a national problem, as this graphic, updated as of May 2019, shows.
Image: US Geological Survey.
Chronic wasting disease was first found in Pennsylvania in a captive deer in Adams County in 2012. It was discovered in three wild, free-ranging deer later that same year.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission tested 79,491 white-tailed deer and 809 elk since then, looking for more.
No elk ever tested positive for the disease. But 250 wild whitetails have.
The breakdown of positive cases by year is as follows:
- 2012: 3
- 2013: 2
- 2014: 5
- 2015: 12
- 2016: 25
- 2017: 79
- 2018: 123
One deer has already tested positive for the disease this year. But sampling efforts area really just starting and will peak in fall, when hunting seasons are underway.
Counties where wasting disease has been found in wild, free-ranging are Cambria, Clearfield, Franklin, Huntingdon, Jefferson, Perry and Somerset.
Additional deer in captive facilities also tested positive for the disease. Those records are maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
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