PGC Director Ross to retire this year

By Jeff
Mulhollem
Editor

Harrisburg — While Pennsylvania game commissioners were
planning to grant emergency powers to agency Executive Director
Vern Ross to deal with chronic wasting disease, it turns out he was
planning his retirement.

Just after the board gave him wide-ranging powers to deal with
the always-fatal-to-deer malady if it shows up in the state, Ross,
who is 64 and has been at the helm of the Game Commission for 61/2
years, announced he would step down effective Dec. 31.

“I’m going to be 65 years old shortly, and when you get to that
point in life when the sun is starting to set, you know you have to
do other things,” Ross said at the commission’s quarterly meeting.
“I want to spend more time with my wife and family and
grandchildren. You are always tempted to stay and fight that next
battle, but the reality is that there is always another
battle.”

With CWD in New York less than 100 miles north of the
Pennsylvania border and with emergency powers being granted to him
by board action, Ross will likely face his next battle before he
retires.

Under the motion proposed for rule-making by the commissioners,
Ross or his successor will have the authority to prohibit the
importation of certain wildlife parts, such as the heads of
hunter-killed deer or elk and ban the feeding of deer and elk.

If CWD is actually found inside the state’s borders, the
executive director will have the authority to order the
depopulating of deer in an area and set up a CWD containment area
where it would be illegal to possess or transport any live deer or
elk.

Commissioner Russ Schleiden likened the agency’s present stance
on CWD as “heightened readiness” and hinted Ross might take some of
the steps — such as ban the importation of cervid body parts —
shortly after final rule-making is approved on the motion at the
Game Commis-sion’s meeting Oct. 2-3.

The state’s chronic wasting disease response plan, completed in
draft form in 2003, is being updated. Bob Boyd, assistant director
of the Game Commission’s bureau of wildlife management; Dr. Paul
Knepley, veterinarian in the Pennsylvania Department of
Agriculture; and officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
hope to have the final version finished by late summer or early
fall.

This month’s action by commissioners to give the executive
director authority to ban the importation of certain animal parts
will likely lead to some immediate action. Boyd said internal staff
are recommending that Ross impose such a ban as soon as
commissioners finalize his authority in October.

What’s more, he said the commission may, in anticipation of that
October vote and Ross’ executive order, alert hunters as soon as
August that their window for bringing whole carcasses back is about
to close.

Across the country, 15 states already have regulations in place
limiting the parts of deer and elk hunters can bring back when
hunting elsewhere.

Schleiden and Commissioner Stephen Mohr abstained on the
emergency powers vote, which was 5-0, because they have menagerie
and propagation permits respectively and have captive deer
businesses.

Commissioner Roxane Palone pointed out that the Game Commission
is part of a Pennsylvania CWD Task Force that includes the state
Depart-ment of Agriculture, the Depart-ment of Environmental
Protection and other agencies, and all actions the commission takes
will be in close consultation and coordination with the others. “We
won’t do anything alone,” she said.

Cal DuBrock, director of the Game Commission’s Bureau of
wildlife management, noted that the commission is considering
stepping up CWD testing and surveillance in the counties closest to
the New York outbreak. “We are evaluating that at the present
time,” he said.

Carl Graybill, director of the Bureau of Information and
Education, stressed it was important that Pennsylvania not
duplicate Wisconsin’s experience with CWD where many hunters didn’t
buy licenses when the disease was discovered. “We want to prevent
any hysteria or paranoia over this disease,” he said. “We need a
comprehensive plan to control all the ways that CWD could come into
this state. We believe it is a question of when, and not if, CWD
arrives.”

But not everyone approved of the Game Commission’s measured
response to the threat of CWD. David Griffith, president of the
Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association, urged commissioners to move
faster. His group claims that CWD is more likely to come into the
state on the back of a hunter’s four-wheel-drive vehicle than on
four legs of a live deer.

“We should be every bit as concerned about hunter-killed
carcasses as we are about live animal movement,” he said. “It is
inconceivable that Pennsylvania requires veterinarian checks and
certified herd status before a live deer can be brought across our
borders, and we test thousands of hunter-killed deer and elk that
were shot in Penn’s Woods, but we do absolutely nothing about the
movement of dead cervids from out of state.

“The Game Commission should not wait to enact restrictions on
the importation of hunter-killed carcasses,” Griffith added. “With
hunting seasons starting as soon as August, we cannot afford to sit
on our hands and wait until CWD is discovered in the commonwealth
before we do anything. That’s like trying to diffuse a bomb that
has already gone off. We believe that regulations on the
importation and disposal of hunter-killed carcasses should be
enacted immediately.”

Although Ross said he believes controlling CWD is the most
critical issue facing sportsmen and his agency today, they will
have to do it without his help after this year. “As much as I care
about serving the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the commonwealth’s
wildlife and Pennsylvania’s hunters and trappers, it’s time for me
to find more time for the people who matter most to me — my
family,” he said.

“Now that the Board of Game Commissioners has a full complement
of eight members, I want to give them time to conduct an
appropriate search, interview and selection process so that the
agency can begin a new year with a new executive director.”

Speaking just after his retirement announcement, John Riley,
president commissioner, said working with Ross has been a joy. “He
runs the agency in an effective and efficient manner. You can
always count on an answer that is straight and true. I, for one, am
sad to see him go.”

Riley called an executive session after the commission meeting
to begin planning what he promised would be a nationwide search for
a new executive director.

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