Focus on chronic wasting disease grows as rifle deer hunting season starts
The specter of chronic wasting disease is beginning to cast a shadow over Pennsylvania’s deer hunting season.
While CWD poses a threat to the deer herd that hunters rely on, hunters themselves are becoming an integral part of the state’s strategy to stop the spread of the fatal disease.
Deer season, which opens Saturday and continues through Dec. 14, is a time for trophies, memories and venison. But it’s becoming a time dominated with concerns over CWD.
“I think it is a huge threat to deer hunting,” said Klint Macro, president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League.
In October, the ACSL for the first time put out an advisory on the importance of hunters avoiding sick deer. The league, a consortium of 25 member clubs in Allegheny and surrounding counties, also has published a pamphlet on the topic.
The pamphlet quotes Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans, who said in 2018: “The introduction of CWD into Pennsylvania is an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
Macro said if the disease goes unchecked, it has the potential to spread into Western Pennsylvania and across the state.
“At the current rate of expansion, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that within two years it might be touching Allegheny County,” he said.
Currently, the incidence of CWD has been limited to about 250 deer that have tested positive — 246 of them within Disease Management Area 2 in south central Pennsylvania. That area includes about half of Somerset County and a small portion of northeast Westmoreland County.
The game commission has set up three Disease Management Areas as a way to stop the spread of CWD, which was first detected in 2012 at a deer farm in Adams County. DMA regulations prohibit the removal of carcass parts with the highest risk of transmitting the disease.
The fact that DMA 2 extends into Westmoreland County does not mean, however, that CWD has been detected in Westmoreland County, cautioned Patrick Snickles, state game warden supervisor for the game commission’s Southwest Region.
The DMA boundary includes a buffer zone and is not meant to discourage hunters from hunting within the DMA, Snickles said.
“To help combat the disease, we need hunters to hunt in the DMA — to keep the deer numbers lower and, therefore, keep the prevalence of the disease lower,” he said.
The more that deer are harvested within a DMA, the more that can be tested for the spread of the disease, he said.
Once a deer is taken in a DMA, the high-risk parts — the central nervous system, brain tissue, lymph nodes and spleen — should either be left in the field or in Dumpsters provided by the game commission. The head can be deposited in a game commission bin for free testing. Results usually take four to six weeks.
Once the high-risk parts are removed, hunters can export the remaining meat, cleaned capes, cleaned skull plates with antlers, and finished taxidermy mounts from the DMA, Snickles said.
Macro advises that deer harvested in a DMA be processed within the DMA by a state-approved butcher or taxidermist. The meat should be packaged, marked and frozen until test results confirm that the animal was disease-free, he said.
“It’s prudent to get the deer tested, from a safety standpoint,” he said. “I am cautious when I feed my family venison.”
Although there have been no reports of humans contracting CWD, eating venison contaminated with CWD is a risk, Macro said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends never consuming meat from CWD-positive animals.
Deer that show any obvious signs of having the disease — poor muscle coordination, emaciation, excessive salivation or urination, fearlessness toward people — or are otherwise acting “odd” should be avoided, Macro said.
What’s more, that deer should be reported to the game commission as soon as possible, he said. Part of the problem is that it can take up to 24 months for symptoms to show in an infected animal.
Snickles said he does not believe that concerns over CWD have led to a drop in hunting activity in the state.
“I just think it’s something we’ll have to deal with. I’m happy to see people concerned about it,” he said.
“We all agree that the best way to manage CWD is to try to contain it in areas where it’s found,” Macro said. “Hunters are the first line of defense in that effort.”
Even if the presence of CWD hasn’t changed hunting behavior, it is causing hunters to be more cautious about the deer they take, Macro said.
“Just because you harvest a deer in a DMA does not necessarily mean that it has CWD. But as per the directions we give, you need to leave the high-risk parts in that area and get that deer tested … so that the game commission can better track the spread of CWD,” he said.
Area meat processors and taxidermists also are adapting to the CWD threat.
“You definitely want to be careful handing the high-risk parts — the spinal cord, the lymph nodes, the eyes, the brain, the kidneys,” said Mark Zimmerman, owner of Hoffer’s Ligonier Valley Packing.
CWD has become more of an issue for the Ligonier Township business since the game commission expanded the boundaries of DMA 2 into Westmoreland County. Heads of processed deer are used by the game commission for random testing, Zimmerman said.
“The (disease management) areas keep expanding and they keep finding more (positive deer), so now the emphasis is on trying to handle them as safely as we can,” he said.
Zimmerman said most hunters look at their deer, figure it’s healthy and don’t worry about it.
The game commission is seeking public comment on a proposal to more actively involve deer hunters in the fight against CWD. The commission released a draft report and is accepting comments through Feb. 29 — in time for implementation in the 2020-21 hunting seasons.
Proposals include expanding deer seasons in CWD areas, removing deer antler-point restrictions and increasing allocations of antlerless deer permits. In areas where a new, isolated CWD-positive deer is detected, allowing hunters to take additional antlered deer also is being considered.
In addition to enlisting the help of hunters, the game commission is weighing a proposal to ban the feeding of deer and wild turkey by the general public.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .