Chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer

The fact that the Pennsylvania Game Commission has proposed using snipers to thin the deer herd amid a rush of chronic wasting disease – especially in our region – should tell you how serious the problem is, and the threat the issue presents to the important hunting industry.

Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans called CWD “an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes.”

Burhans told our Harrisburg reporter, John Finnerty: “We can’t eradicate it, but we can manage it.”

Experts say CWD affects a deer’s brain, causing the animal to slowly decline. The disease is always fatal, and has been compared to mad cow disease in cattle and “scrapie” in sheep, both degenerative conditions.

The disease is spread among members of a deer or elk herd through saliva, blood, urine and fecal material. Symptoms include weight loss and reduced mobility.

CWD was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012, Since then, 250 wild deer have tested positive for the disease, but half of those were in the past year, as Finnerty reported. 

A recent Outdoors report from CNHI’s John Zaktansky, on staff at The Daily Item of Sunbury, showed that CWD is most prevalent along Pennsylvania’s southern border – from Somerset County east through Bedford County and all the way to Harrisburg, and north into Cambria, Blair and Huntingdon counties.

There have been no reports of CWD spreading to humans.

But scientists fear that as the disease expands among wildlife, and as the state’s deer and elk herd grow, that the risk of CWD infecting people will rise. 

“There is an increasing proximity of humans and the deer population,” Dr. Ryan Maddox, of the Centers for Disease Control, told Zaktansky.

Hunting is responsible for 15,000 jobs in Pennsylvania and has a major economic impact – $529 million annually in salaries and wages and $1.6 billion in overall spending, Zaktansky reported.

However, Pennsylvania has seen a steady decline in hunting for decades, a factor in the growth of the state’s deer herd.

Snipers have been used to control the spread of CWD in New York, Illinois and Minnesota, game commission spokeswoman Courtney Colley said.

Beyond that step, the state is considering expanding hunting opportunities to help reduce the number of deer in the woods. Under consideration are a longer hunting season, fewer restrictions on antler sizes, issuing more antlerless deer permits and more antlerless hunting near areas where CWD has been seen.

The game commission has placed drop bins in the areas most heavily impacted by CWD. Hunters are asked to deposit the heads of deer they harvest into those bins so they can be studied.

Scientists say about 5% of the deer herd in the affected areas has CWD, but that could jump to 20% in two decades if no counter measures are put in place.

In Wisconsin, a study estimated that half of the adult bucks have CWD. Nobody wants to see that happen in Pennsylvania.

Illinois has reduced the levels of CWD by encouraging more hunters to go into the woods, then supplementing with professional sharpshooters to hit harvesting goals. Illinois’ CWD level is about 2%, Colley said.

“In my mind, that is a good success story,” Colley said, noting the differences in neighboring Illinois and Wisconsin.

We agree, and support the game commission’s shift into an active response to the chronic wasting disease situation.

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