CWD hearing to debate what to do about troublesome disease

Posted on: April 4, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

It’s no on the calendar yet.

But sooner rather than later – perhaps within a month – state lawmakers expect to hold a public hearing examining the problem that is chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania.

Exactly what the members of the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee are going to focus on is something they themselves are still trying to determine.

The disease, commonly called CWD, affects deer and elk. It’s always fatal, and there’s no way to test animals for it while they’re alive.

It first showed up in Pennsylvania on an Adams County deer farm in 2012. It’s since spread, and exists in three disease management areas across Pennsylvania.

Its presence on the landscape is tremendously bad news, said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“Chronic wasting disease threatens our hunting heritage and the state’s $1.6 billion industry tied to hunting. Like the loss of the American chestnut tree from chestnut blight, the introduction to CWD to Pennsylvania is truly an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes,” Burhans said.

It needs to be brought under control, he added.

“What all can we do to try and help that cause?” asked Rep. Mindy Fee, a Lancaster County Republican.

Numerous lawmakers have been asking the same thing recently.

Different people are offering different answers.

Burhans, in testifying before the House and Senate recently, suggested that more needs to be done to keep farm-raised deer and wild, free-ranging deer from coming into contact with one another. Requiring deer farms to be encircled by a double layer of fencing would help, he said.

“Whether it’s wild deer that are giving it to the pen-raised deer, or the pen-raised deer giving it to the wild, it doesn’t matter which way it’s going. That double fencing would be a huge benefit to both the wild populations and the cervid industry itself,” Burhans said.

Double fencing might also lessen the number of farm deer escaping into the wild, he added.

Burhans said that, over the past decade, about 1,500 farm-raised deer escaped into the wild. Only about half were reported missing within 48 hours, as required by law.

Most weren’t tagged, he said, making it difficult for game wardens to help track them down.

He told lawmakers that the commission can’t require double fencing. It has no authority over deer farms. That’s the job of the state Department of Agriculture.

But lawmakers could push for that, he suggested.

If they do, they’ll run into some opposition.

After hearing Burhans’ testimony, the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association distributed a letter to the editor taking exception to much of it.

Attributed to Jarrid Barry, vice president of the group, it charges the commission and Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs – which supports proposals like double fencing – with unfairly blaming the spread of CWD on farm deer.

What’s more, proposals like the one for mandatory double fencing could “cripple business for roughly a 1,000 family farming operations within the commonwealth.”

“Attacking Pennsylvania’s farming community is a short sighted strategy and ultimately a failed approach in dealing with CWD,” Barry wrote.

He said the commission instead should look to do more itself.

Deer farms are regulated under two sets of guidelines, one aimed at hobby-like farms and one for more commercial operations. Fifty percent of all the deer that die on the former must be tested for CWD. It’s 100 percent on the latter.

By comparison, the commission tests about 5,700 hunter-killed wild deer — or less than 2 percent of the total harvest — annually, Barry said.

“A testing protocol that excludes over 98 percent of the total harvest should be concerning to everyone,” Barry said.

Burhans said the commission tests more deer than that. It was roughly 8,000 last year, counting road kills and those animals shot because they seemed suspiciously sick.

That’s more than any other state, he said. It’s also costly, he added.

Last year, the commission spent $750,000 on wasting disease. It’s already at $1.6 million this year, and expects that number to go as high as $2.3 million by year’s end.

One lawmaker asked if that figure should be even higher.

Rep. Bryan Barbon, a Cambria County Democrat and minority chairman of the House game and fisheries committee, noted that the commission has $57 million in its reserve budget. Should it be using some of that to fight the disease, he wondered.

“If I had a cure, and the price tag was $57 million, our board would agree, I think, to spend that money in a heartbeat,” Burhans said. “No question.”

The commission is interested in investing in technologies to combat the disease as they prove themselves, he added. One – a test that could detect CWD in deer feces, thereby identifying sick deer while still alive – could be “a game changer,” if it pans out.

Until then, the best way lawmakers could help the commission would be just to support its action, Burhans said.

Wisconsin has wasting disease in 45 to 50 percent of its deer in areas, he noted. That’s not because the state’s Division of Natural Resources didn’t have a plan for battling it.

Rather, Burhans said, when hunters objected to those plans, they complained to lawmakers, who forced the division to back down.

He said that can’t happen in Pennsylvania when the commission tries things like targeted shooting of deer to remove potentially sick family groups. Lawmakers must support the agency to avoid what Burbin called a “Wisconsin problem.”

“Your support and education of your constituents, that backing, will allow us to have a chance to win. If we don’t have that backing, we’ll lose,” Burhans said.

Other changes that may come up in CWD hearing

What else are lawmakers thinking about when it comes to controlling chronic wasting disease?

Some things they’ve been talking about include:

  • A ban on the importation of farm-raised deer into the state.
  • A statewide ban on feeding deer
  • A statewide ban on the use of natural urine-based attractants for deer hunting.

The latter two are illegal now, but only within the confines of disease management areas, or places where CWD already exists.

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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