Any cervid — be it a deer, elk or moose — that contracts chronic wasting disease ultimately dies. There is no way to prevent it, no cure and no way to test animals for the disease while alive.
Might Pennsylvania soon consider a new, radically more lethal, way of combating the spread of chronic wasting disease?
The Game Commission has been on the lookout for the always-fatal disease of deer and other cervids, trying to determine how prevalent it might be. It collected samples from 5,570 whitetails statewide this fall.
The commission especially targeted what’s known as disease management area 2, which extends from the southcentral part of the state west in Somerset and Cambria counties. A total of 1,476 samples were taken there, with an emphasis on 11 townships in Blair and Bedford counties where most of the cases in the wild have been found previously.
Test results are expected in February.
These are the 11 townships in Blair and Bedford counties that were the site of targeted CWD surveillance this past fall. Might they also be the most likely spot for targeted shooting?
Simply identifying where the disease is and in what prevalence may be likely aren’t enough, though, not if deer and deer hunting are to be preserved, warned Wayne Laroche, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife management.
In Illinois, he said, biologists are trying a new course of action to combat the disease. They’re employing “targeted shooting.”
And what’s that?
It’s using sharpshooters to kill as many deer as possible over bait in specific areas in winter, when they’re “clustered,” he said.
It might soon be time to try that here, Laroche suggested.
Among other possible ways to slow spread of the disease – from banning the movement of high-risk parts to stopping the use of deer urines by hunters – it might be “the best alternative to test,” he said.
That’s no small decision, though.
“If we do this, everyone has to realize, it’s not going to be just a few years. It’s probably something that’s going to have to go on for a very long time,” Laroche said.
Not surprisingly, Game Commissioners had questions.
Brian Hoover, commissioner from Delaware County, wanted to know how big an area would have to be “depopulated” via shooting.
Chris Rosenberry, the commission’s chief deer biologist, said no one knows exactly how far deer will travel to visit a bait site. But research the agency has done monitoring the movements of collared deer revealed they regularly roam a mile or two.
To work as Laroche suggested, any targeted shooting area would have to account for that.
“I think you’re talking square miles, hundreds of acres, thousands of acres,” Rosenberry said.
Hoover also wondered if shooting has a chance to work. If shooters depopulated a 1,200-acre area, for example, wouldn’t new deer just move in to fill the void, he asked? And wouldn’t they contract the disease, given that it can persist in the environment for years?
Laroche said one theory is that wasting disease is most commonly spread via deer-to-deer contact among animals that are related or at least genetically similar. If that’s the case, he added, removing all or most of the deer from a potentially-infected gene pool might be a way to minimize or even eradicate it.
“But, no guarantees,” Laroche said.
There are no plans to do any shooting this winter. It would happen next year, at the earliest, Hoover said.
Before then, Laroche said he’d like to travel around the state talking to sportsmen about the idea and gauging their support.
That could be tough to come by, if history is any guide.
When wasting disease first showed up in Wisconsin in 2002, wildlife officials liberalized seasons and tried to use hunters to lower deer numbers dramatically. That proved “untenable” and was abandoned in the face of huge public opposition, Laroche admitted.
It’s also true, though, that the disease has since continued to spread there. In some areas, it’s now found in as many as 40 percent of deer, he noted.
A study of a western mule deer herd, meanwhile, has found that wasting disease is causing it to shrink by 19 percent annually. Laroche said researchers predict the herd could disappear within 40 years.
“It appears the no-action policy is a recipe for disaster,” Laroche said.
Commissioner Tim Layton said any effort to battle the disease needs to get sportsmen on board.
“It’s got to be a huge educational effort,” he said.