Pennsylvania elk are important not only to hunters, but to a a tourist industry, too.
This is what Pennsylvania Game Commission officials fear.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed on Feb. 23 that a 2.5-year-old cow elk killed during its most recent hunting season in October tested positive for chronic wasting disease. That marked the disease’s first appearance in the 500-animal elk herd, and in the state at all.
An aggressive containment effort was to result.
The Arkansas commission originally planned to kill about 300 free-ranging animals – both white-tailed deer and all 30 to 40 elk that lived in the area where the CWD-positive one turned up – and test them for the disease.
The hope, with taking the elk in particular, was that the commission might be able to eradicate the disease before it spread any further.
On March 9, the commission announced that a 2.5-year-old whitetail doe was found dead about 12 miles away from where the elk was killed. It, too, was CWD positive.
That sparked a change.
The new plan is to kill 300 deer and test them for the disease. If more positives turn up, shooters will kill additional whtietails in an ever-expanding circle to determine the prevalence of the disease, reads a commission news release.
Only obviously sick elk will be killed, though. Eliminating that sub-herd is no longer on the table.
“We’re not going to determine the prevalence of CWD in elk at this point, because it would require a large sample of the relatively small elk herd to be valid statistically,” said Dick Baxter, assistant chief of the commission’s wildlife management division.
In the meantime, the agency will also be setting up a CWD containment zone with special regulations meant to slow the spread of the disease.
Here, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has established three “disease management areas” around the discovery of CWD-positive deer. In two, the sick deer were farm-raised animals; in one, it included wild whitetails.
There’s long been speculation as to what the commission would do if CWD – an always fatal prion disease with no live animal test and no cure – showed up in Pennsylvania’s elk herd.
It includes about 1,000 animals and – like the herd in Arkansas, reintroduced there about 35 years ago — supports not only hunting but also a tourist industry. People travel from dozens of states each year to see the elk in places like Benezette.
Pennsylvania’s elk exist in a number of distinct “subpopulations,” noted commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County. He asked how the commission would respond if CWD were to get into one of those groups, some of which are comprised of hundreds of animals.
“We haven’t discussed it,” said Wayne Laroche, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife management. “But we’d probably want to eliminate it.”
Putnam asked him to come back to the board, soon, with specifics on what steps the commission will take if wasting disease hits the elk herd.