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Outdoors

Chronic wasting disease effects focus of hearing before lawmakers

Bob Frye
| Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 10:54 p.m.
A female white-tailed deer peers through the trees in a backyard.
A female white-tailed deer peers through the trees in a backyard.

HARRISBURG — Nothing less than the future of a $1 billion Pennsylvania industry is at stake.

That was the message delivered to lawmakers Wednesday at the Capital regarding deer hunting.

The state House game and fisheries and tourism and recreational development committees held a joint hearing on chronic wasting disease. Representatives of the Game Commission, Department of Agriculture and Governor's Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation testified.

Wayne Laroche, director of the commission's bureau of wildlife management, explained wasting disease is a fatal prion disease that affects white-tailed deer and other cervids, like elk. It was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2011.

It is, so far as anyone knows, contained to three “disease management areas” across the state.

However, that is not certain. Laroche said despite operating one of the larger surveillance programs in the country, the commission's odds of detecting the disease in 1 percent of the deer herd are only about 50-50.

“I don't like those odds,” he said.

As a result, the commission is looking to prevent the disease from spreading and contain it where it is prevalent. That might involve prohibiting hunters from bringing back “high-risk” deer and elk parts — such as brains and spinal cords — from every state and Canadian province. It also could involve “targeted shooting” of deer by sharpshooters in areas where wasting disease is most prevalent, Laroche said.

Action of some sort is needed quickly, he said. States that have failed to act, such as Wisconsin and West Virginia, have seen wasting disease spike to 40 percent of the deer herd in places, Laroche said. In Wyoming, he said, there are predictions that the mule deer herd will go extinct within 40 years because of it.

By comparison, Illinois – using targeted shooting – has kept the disease to 1 percent of its deer herd since 2002.

The prevalence of wasting disease stands at 0.75 percent across disease management area 2 in southcentral and southwestern Pennsylvania — the only place it's in the wild herd — and at 1.7 percent within an 11-township “core,” Laroche said.

The disease is expected to grow “exponentially,” though, spreading to as much as 10 percent of the herd within three to five years if nothing is done, Laroche said. From there, it will be all but uncontrollable, he said.

Beyond that, there are economics to consider, said Robb Miller, director of the Governor's Advisory Council. About 70 percent of the more than $1 billion in economic activity statewide attributable to hunting results from deer hunting, he said.

Elk tourism also is at risk, he said. If the state's 1,000-animal elk herd — which draws visitors from all over the nation — disappears, so do those people and their tourism dollars, he said.

“To think that the elk herd would be at risk is just extremely scary,” said Rep. Keith Gillespie, the York County Republican chairman of the game and fisheries committee.

Rep. Bill Kortz, an Allegheny County Democrat, asked what the commission might do if wasting disease hits that herd. Might it move elk away from an infection site, he asked?

Laroche said that because there is no way to test live animals for the disease, the commission would be hesitant to move animals for fear of spreading it. More likely, he said, the commission would eliminate all or at least parts of the herd.

“If we have no other choice, we might have to push that button,” he said.

Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via @bobfryeoutdoors.

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