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Pennsylvania Game Commission asks for public support in treating chronic wasting disease

| Saturday, July 15, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
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Pennsylvania’s elk herd is suddenly more at risk than ever from chronic wasting disease. A deer infected with the illness was found just 10 miles from the elk range.

Amidst a situation described as “dire” already and potentially “catastrophic” soon, a campaign for the hearts and minds of Pennsylvania's hunters is underway.

Newly discovered chronic wasting disease is the reason.

Pennsylvania Game Commission officials said an adult buck with CWD, as the always-fatal ailment is known, recently was found on state game land 87 in Bell Township, Clearfield County. That's within disease management area 3.

Wasting disease was discovered there previously, in 2014. That, though, was on two captive deer farms.

It never was detected in wild deer there before now, despite the commission having tested 1,012 hunter- and road-killed whitetails, executive director Bryan Burhans said.

Its presence is bad news, given what's at stake.

Burhans said hunting generates $1.6 billion in economic activity statewide annually. Hunting license sales, meanwhile, largely fund the commission.

“The mere existence of chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania represents a serious risk to our deer and elk herds and hunting and conservation in the commonwealth,” Burhans said.

It's not just one deer jeopardizing that.

Justin Brown, the commission's wildlife veterinarian, said the Clearfield County buck was euthanized by a wildlife conservation officer after exhibiting “clinical” signs of disease. It was emaciated, he said, and lethargic to the point of being unaware of its surroundings.

Given how the disease works, that suggests the deer was sick — and spreading infectious prions on the landscape — for at least one year, and perhaps two, before discovery, said Wayne Laroche, director of the commission's bureau of wildlife management.

So it's probably not one of a kind.

“I think there's a pretty high likelihood that there are” other sick deer out there, Laroche said.

If left unchecked, he said, the disease will spread “exponentially.”

That's how things are playing out elsewhere within the state.

Between 2012 and '15, the commission found — statewide — 22 CWD-positive deer. Then, last year alone, it found 25 more, all wild animals within disease management area 2 in southcentral Pennsylvania.

This year it has confirmed nine more there.

“So we have every reason to believe we'll be on the order of 40 or 50 cases this year,” Laroche said.

If that's not scary enough, discovery of wasting disease in management area 3 has potential to do more harm.

The sick Clearfield County buck was found just 10 miles from the western edge of the state's elk range. Elk, too, are susceptible to CWD.

The idea the state's elk might contract disease is alarming, said Cindy Dunn, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

She called them the “keystone” of tourism in northcentral Pennsylvania. They, more than anything else, draw visitors to the region to learn about conservation, explore the outdoors and spend money, she said.

“A threat to our elk herd is a threat to conservation in our view, and a threat to tourism and our economy,” Dunn said. “So we view this very, very seriously.”

The Keystone Elk Country Alliance does as well.

Andy Olsen, a biologist with the Alliance, said the Elk Country Visitor Center has drawn more than two million visitors since opening in 2010. They've come from all 50 states and 45 countries.

The fear, he said, is that if wasting disease gets into the elk herd — and leads to fewer elk — that activity will dry up.

“Some business models in the region are based on per capita spending by visitors. So fewer visitors means less income for businesses,” Olsen said.

That's where the campaign — nothing short of a plea, really — comes in.

Burhans stressed the need to aggressively attack the disease, costly though it will be.

The commission has been spending about $1 million a year on wasting disease. He expects that to at least double.

But such investments are “necessary and the right thing to do,” he said.

Dunn and Olsen agreed and said they're behind whatever the commission wants and needs to do, with Dunn going so far as to pledge to “commit resources” to the battle.

And what is the commission's plan?

It will make available 2,800 deer management assistance program permits for disease area 3. They'll allow hunters to kill antlerless deer on public or private ground.

Applications will be available soon, Burhans said.

It also will establish two collection sites — at locations to be determined — where hunters will be asked to drop off deer heads for testing. Using those, the commission will pinpoint where sick deer are coming from.

That leads to perhaps the trickiest part of the commission's response plan.

Next winter, after hunting seasons close, it will use sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cull potentially hundreds of deer, Laroche said.

The goal, he said, will be to remove highly susceptible family groups and contain or eliminate the disease, as has worked elsewhere.

“This is really the only tool we have, the only method that has shown any success,” Laroche said.

It sometimes has been controversial elsewhere, though.

In Wisconsin, for example, efforts to cull deer met with enough public opposition that they were largely abandoned.

Burhans, Dunn and Olsen called for public support of that work here.

The commission will conduct two public meetings this year — one in disease area 2, another in area 3 — to spread that message. Burhans hopes people will accept the necessity of killing deer for the sake of the overall herd.

“There is still a lot that's unknown about chronic wasting disease. But the methods we are proposing are the best options we have at this time, based on results in Pennsylvania and other states with CWD,” Burhans said.

“If we are going to have any chance of controlling this disease, we will need the support of our hunters, the public and our partners in the legislature.”

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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