2019-03-09 / Viewpoints

Disease threatens deer, elk

By Bryan Burhans

(Bryan Burhans is executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.)

Chronic wasting disease threatens our hunting heritage, and the state’s $1.6 billion industry tied to deer and elk hunting. To ignore CWD will lead to one certain result: it will increase in prevalence and spread throughout the state.

When CWD prevalence rates get too high, it is unlikely we can ever turn back the clock. We are witnessing this in Wisconsin right now, where prevalence rates are over 50 percent in certain areas.

We recently expanded Disease Management Area 3 as a result of another CWD-positive pen-raised deer found on a Clearfield County deer operation. This signals the first significant risk in Pennsylvania’s elk range.

Creation of a Disease Management Area results in increased regulations affecting hunters, deer processors and taxidermists. Movement of high-risk deer parts are prohibited from leaving the DMA.

In addition, last year the agency instituted an all-states ban on importation of high-risk parts from deer harvested in any state that has tested positive for CWD. This ban placed a burden on hunters, deer processors, and taxidermists. However, high-risk deer parts represent a real risk factor in the spread of CWD.

In order to determine the extent of CWD within Disease Management Areas, we asked hunters who harvested a deer to remove the head and place it within a drop box for CWD testing. We also provide dumpsters for leaving the high-risk parts. Last year we received approximately 6,300 samples for testing and are awaiting the results.

Understanding that our ability to combat this disease is dependent upon acceptance from the public, we increased our outreach concerning CWD to spread awareness of the risk the disease poses to our state mammal.

This past year we held more than two dozen public events and published approximately 15 press releases and social media posts concerning CWD. Those numbers will only increase as we move forward and ask our hunters to play a larger role in both monitoring the disease and combatting its spread.

Due to the constantly changing Disease Management Area boundaries, the complexity of CWD, and to combat the misinformation constantly being distributed to the public, we will be providing the agency’s hunter digest to all hunters at no cost to the hunter. It contains a significant amount of information on CWD.

The only current strategy that is available to control the spread and prevalence of CWD is through targeted removal of deer in and around new CWD-positive whitetails, and herd reduction in areas with long-term infections. This, unfortunately, places the Game Commission in a very unpopular position with our hunters and the citizens of Pennsylvania.

It should be no surprise that hunters, and the public, do not like the idea of sharpshooters. We don’t like it either. However, these are the only techniques which are demonstrating progress in managing this disease.

Our Game Commission is not alone in being in this unfortunate position. Every other state wildlife agency dealing with this disease is in the same predicament.

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