The long-ranging ripple effects of chronic wasting disease go well beyond the wild deer herd it is slowly killing across the state.
“I am definitely not looking forward to this issue being in our area,” said Troy Bowersox, a multi-generational hunter from Union County – just north of an expanded Disease Management Area (DMA) sparked by a pair of CWD-positive deer in eastern Juniata County.
“I need to research it more, but if it is bad, I’ll probably stop hunting here.”
The CWD threat strikes fear in the heart of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which has been struggling for more than a decade to curb the decline of hunting licenses sold in the state – and the myriad of environmental and conservation programs those sales benefit.
“Deer hunting is our most popular type of hunting, and considering the fear of Chronic Wasting Disease impacting the health of the people who consume the meat, there is a really good chance this will greatly impact the license sales throughout the state if we don’t act now,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission’s CWD spokesperson, Courtney Colley.
“Many don’t realize the ripple effect hunting has on other industries throughout the state, how much hunting helps all sorts of environmental conservation efforts and the potential economic impact.”
According to the group Hunting Works for Pennsylvania, hunters support more than 15,000 jobs in the state, generating $529 million in salaries and wages. When you add in the amount of state, local and federal taxes hunters help generate, the total economic impact of hunting in Pennsylvania is $1.6 billion annually.
With so much at stake, here are five things every Pennsylvania hunter needs to know about CWD, the game commission’s plan of attack and what new regulations are required in areas where the disease has been found.
1. What is the disease?
CWD is an always-fatal prion-based disease that creates irreversible damage to a deer’s brain, causing a zombie-like state where the deer’s health dwindles until the animal perishes. It is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. In humans, the closest-related condition is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).
CWD can be spread among members of the state’s deer family, including whitetail deer and elk, through saliva, blood, urine and fecal matter. According to Colley, the ground itself can become contaminated with the mutated prions from an infected deer, and those prions can be transferred via vegetation that grows on that ground – for more than a decade.
There is no vaccine. There is no cure. The only effective test is via a brain sample from a deceased deer, and CWD can sit dormant in a deer for upwards of two years before any symptoms become visible.
2. Can CWD spread to humans?
While there have been no reported cases where CWD transferred to people, there is still reason to be concerned, according to Dr. Ryan Maddox of the Centers for Disease Control.
“There is history of a prion disease already crossing species from animals to humans in terms of bovine spongiform encephalitis (mad cow disease) to the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD),” he said. “CWD is different than mad cow, and there are no current cases on record where a human has contracted CWD, but there is still concern based on the history.”
Another reason for concern, he added, was the increasing spread of CWD.
“The concentrations of deer and elk throughout the country is expanding and we have seen an influx of new cases of CWD in different regions,” he said. “There is an increasing proximity of humans and the deer population.”
Thirdly, he referenced a currently unpublished scientific study by Canadian researcher Stefanie Czub in which macaque monkeys contracted CWD after consuming meat from infected deer.
“Macaques are primates with genetic makeup similar to humans, which makes this study and others like it very interesting,” Maddox said. “There was another study done around the same time by the Institute of Health in which the disease did not transfer.”
Other reasons for concern, according to Maddox, involve how easily CWD transfers from deer to deer – and the potential for dormancy.
“Variant CJD has been known to lie dormant for decades in humans,” said Debbie Yobs, president of the CJD Foundation. “What if CWD follows a similar pattern?”
3. What is the game commission’s response?
As CWD has advanced slowly from the south through the center of the state, the game commission has been focused more on collecting samples and assessing the situation.
That is about to change.
“Passive management is what we’ve been doing," Colley said. "It involves surveillance, monitoring, collecting hunter and roadkill samples and waiting. Obviously, that isn’t working.
“We need to do what we can to eliminate CWD before it proliferates the landscape. That isn’t always accepted well by the public, but it is shown to work in other parts of the country.”
According to Nick Pinizzotto, president of the National Deer Alliance, consistent herd reduction is the one tool that he’s seen work in terms of reducing the prevalence of CWD.
“Illinois has seen a lot of success because they are keeping deer herds thin," Pinizzotto said. "Hunters are taking more deer, and where needed, professionals are brought in to augment that reduction.
“It doesn’t sit well with hunters to hear that – no one wants to bring in the USDA (United State Department of Agriculture) sharpshooters, but the other option is to sit there and do nothing, and that doesn’t work, as we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”
According to Colley, Illinois and Wisconsin are used as the benchmarks in CWD deer management. Both saw CWD first discovered in 2002. The following year, both implemented programs that increased the hunter harvest and supplemented that harvest with “targeted removals.” Wisconsin implemented an especially intense “target removal” program in one of its CWD areas.
“That didn’t go over well with the public, and there was a lot of pushback," Colley said. "Funding was cut and the deer management program was all but disbanded. As the herd ballooned in numbers, the CWD prevalence level increased dramatically.”
She added that in large areas of Wisconsin, there is a 25 to 30 percent prevalence of CWD in wild deer.
“In fact, one study suggests there is a 50 percent prevalence of CWD in adult bucks," Colley said. "That means if you harvest a buck in some areas of Wisconsin, there is a 50-50 chance it has CWD.”
Meanwhile, Illinois continued its hunter harvested and targeted removal program with a specific population goal in mind. Hunters go in first, and sharpshooters are only brought in if hunters don’t reach the population goal.
“In the past 15 years, the CWD prevalence in its deer herds is around two percent,” Colley said. “In my mind, that is a good success story. Illinois and Wisconsin have very similar landscapes and are right across from each other. The only difference was the management they were doing.”
4. DMAs, DMAPs and regulations
The terminology attached to the game commission’s CWD response is fairly confusing. DMAs (Disease Management Areas) are set up loosely around regions where CWD-positive deer have been found.
“We usually target a five-mile radius from the sample based on deer dispersal, in which young deer can travel upwards of five miles as they mature,” said Bert Einodshofer, spokesman for the Southcentral region of the game commission. “We use major roadways and other borders to help people get a better idea of where the restrictions start.”
No CWD-prone deer body parts are permitted to be removed from a DMA – these parts include the head, spine and lymph nodes. The feeding of deer at any point during the year is prohibited within any of the DMA regions. All deer harvested within a DMA should be tested for CWD before consumption, Colley said.
“We are asking everyone to drop off the head of any deer they harvest within a DMA into one of the drop-bins we will set up throughout those regions,” she said. “Double-bag the head and leave the harvest tag with the sample, so we know who to contact after it is tested.”
Test results can take three weeks, she added, but the state is looking for ways to speed up that process.
DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) areas are specially designed within a very close radius to the CWD-positive deer where the game commission would like to remove a larger portion of the herd. For example, in the newly designated DMAP 3907 – a small section within eastern Juniata County – 1,000 additional DMAP tags are available for hunters.
The reduction not only slows the progression of CWD, but offers additional samples the game commission uses to better assess the situation.
“They help determine the local infection rate and distribution of the disease, which helps guide future management actions,” Colley said.
5. Where can you stay on top of new developments?
Colley urges everyone to frequent the game commission website, which has a growing library of articles, videos, maps and updated information on CWD.
The website is www.pgc.state.pa.us.
“Education is the first line of action, and we definitely need everyone’s help against the spread of chronic wasting,” Colley said. “Each person can play a part to address the disease – something we collectively have to work on.”