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Chronic wasting disease driving force in decisions made, not made

| Saturday, July 1, 2017, 5:57 p.m.

It always comes back to chronic wasting disease, doesn't it?

That sure seems true lately.

In this — the 50th anniversary of the disease's discovery — CWD continues to shape deer hunting across Pennsylvania.

Consider what's been going on.

Technology

Last week, Pennsylvania Game Commissioners preliminarily legalized three new devices — motorized decoys for hunting waterfowl, ozone gas dispensers for scent control and heated scent for lure dispensers — for hunting.

They might OK spinning wing-type decoys for doves, too.

Commissioner Dave Putnam said he expects hunters will ask for that. Randy Shoup, director of the commission's bureau of wildlife protection, said he is fine with that if commissioners want to allow it.

Final approval of any changes must come when the board next meets in September. Then, the rules changes have to be published in the Pennsylvania bulletin, the final step to making them official.

It's possible all that can happen by the time the late waterfowl seasons roll around.

“But nothing sooner,” said Rich Palmer, a deputy executive director with the commission.

That is what's cut and dry.

What is still up for debate is what hunters will be allowed to use in their heated scent dispenser.

They operate using either actual deer urine or synthetics. Some commissioners are OK with either. Others want only the latter.

Chronic wasting disease is the reason.

It's possible for prions that carry the disease to be dispersed in the air, said Wayne Laroche, director of the commission's bureau of wildlife management. That, he said, is indisputable.

And allowing scent dispensers in the woods increases the likelihood that will occur.

“There is no such thing as zero risk,” Laroche said.

But is the risk high enough — and are potential consequences serious enough — to warrant limiting scent dispensers to only synthetic urines?

That's where the debate comes in.

Commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County said board members have been — and still are — wrestling with the issue, measuring risk against consequence.

“When you put the two together, that's when we have to say, where do we stand as a board on allowing that minute risk to continue? And should we? Especially if there are synthetic alternatives,” Daley said.

Commission president Brian Hoover of Chester County said he's not sure the risk is big enough to justify banning real deer urines and thereby hurting producers economically. Commissioner Tim Layton of Somerset County said some on the board are more inclined to “take a cautionary approach.”

By September, Layton said, they have got to make the call.

“I think it's time for this board to make some tough decisions and figure out which way we want to go,” Layton said.

Management

Pennsylvania is down to having two disease management areas from three.

But, oh, how one is growing.

Disease management area 1 in York, Adams County, was the state's first. It was established in 2012 after CWD was — for the first time — discovered in the state. It showed up in captive deer.

It's not been found since, however, inside or outside a fence, so the area has been dissolved.

Disease area 2 is another story.

Located in southcentral Pennsylvania, it exists in all or parts of Bedford, Blair, Huntingdon, Fulton, Cambria and Somerset counties. It's the one area of the state where CWD was found in the wild deer herd.

That's getting worse, too.

The commission confirmed CWD in 22 deer between 2012 and 2015. In 2016, it confirmed another 25.

“This is certainly the most (positive) sample we've had to date. That 25 represents a fairly significant bump,” said commission veterinarian Justin Brown.

Some of those sick deer were detected along the I-99 corridor, which is a hot spot, Brown said. Others were detected in the southeast corner of the area, near where a CWD-positive deer turned up on a Franklin County shooting preserve, and along the Maryland border, he said.

That's prompted a change.

The commission expanded disease management area 2 — Brown called it a “massive expansion” — so it stretches to the former western border of now-dissolved disease management area 1.

Previously, the area encompassed 2,846 square miles. Now, it takes in 4,095.

Shooting

As for how much CWD is out there, the picture may not be good.

And that could require killing deer.

Earlier this year, after 18 months of talking, the commission with other state and federal agencies did “targeted shooting” of deer within disease management area 2. Thirty deer were killed over two nights.

According to Laroche, the animals were shot in Fulton County. That was near the border and “in the immediate vicinity” of a deer farm in Bedford County where state Department of Agriculture testing uncovered a deer that died of chronic wasting disease earlier this year.

The 30 deer were tested for chronic wasting disease.

Laroche told commissioners previously that getting even one sick deer there would be bad news. That would suggest “that we have a higher-than-expected level of CWD prevalence in that location.”

One did come back positive.

Travis Lau, press secretary for the commission, said tissue samples from the animal were tested twice using what's known as an “elisa” test. That offers the quickest turnaround, with results available in as little as three or four days.

Because it's also a test prone to giving false positives, the sample was tested again using another method by the state Department of Agriculture. It turned up positive that way, too.

Finally, the sample was sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Sciences Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for what is considered the “gold standard” of testing. That, too, confirmed it as a positive.

Based on that positive, from a herd in the vicinity thought to number 100 to 200 deer, statistical modeling suggests CWD might be present in 10 percent of animals, Lau said.

“Of course, the more samples we collect, the more we will know about actual prevalence, which could be higher or lower than 10 percent. But the positive test is reason for increased concern more CWD-positive deer might be present in the immediate area,” Lau said.

That, Laroche said, calls for more monitoring. The commission will test road-killed deer in that area this summer and fall, then perhaps shoot more next winter.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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