Ban on deer urine use still in doubt

Harrisburg — The jury is still out.

After a wide-ranging discussion at a work session here Jan. 4 about the burgeoning chronic wasting disease outbreak among Pennsylvania deer, and what can be done to slow its spread, game commissioners emerged with no apparent consensus about actions to take. It remains unclear whether the board will vote at its Jan. 31-Feb. 2 meeting to ban the use of deer urine by hunters.

Commissioners have been discussing such a ban, which has already been initiated by a few other states and a Canadian province, because the fluid is believed to carry the prions that are the infectious agent in transmission of CWD. Scientists believe that the prions can persist for many years in soils and be taken up by plants and ingested by deer.

After the work session, Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, president of the board, indicated that he was leaning toward introducing a deer-urine-use ban at the upcoming meeting. Commissioner Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, said he would probably oppose the measure, believing the link between CWD spread and deer urine use by hunters is too weak to justify the economic hardship a ban would bring.

An industry has grown up around collecting and providing urine-based lures for hunters to spread to attract deer, and a ban would likely put it out of business, Hoover pointed out.

Commission staff, at Putnam’s direction, prepared a regulation for such a ban last fall. Whether a majority of the board would vote to support it is unknown. And, it was revealed, commissioners may soon be asked to approve a range of other actions to slow the spread of CWD, which is always fatal to deer and elk.

Wayne Laroche, director of the Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, told commissioners he believes CWD poses a threat to the very future of deer hunting in Pennsylvania, and he suggested that they may be asked to accept targeted depopulation of small areas where infected animals are found, and a ban on the import of all live cervids into the state.

“Initially, I would not propose to use hunters, USDA APHIS has the capability to shoot deer and we would contract them to do that work,” he said. “Where a CWD positive deer is found, it would involve baiting them in, killing them all, and testing them all. This, of course, would give us research capabilities, and through DNA testing we could see if related deer were infected. The results might inform future management.”

APHIS, which stands for Animal  and Plant Health Inspection Service, has a helicopter that might be used in such an effort, Laroche added.

An import ban of deer and elk into the state would likely have to be implemented by the Department of Agriculture, which now has authority over deer and elk farms. State legislators took that authority away from the Game Commission and gave it to Ag several years ago, when the Game Commission was threatening to shut the operations down for their perceived role in spreading CWD.

Commission officials noted that they would be “pressing Ag” for tighter enforcement of deer farms and a cervid-import ban. 

“Be careful what you wish for, but do we need to go back and try to get control of the fenced-in cervids?” asked Commissioner Tim Layton, of Cambria County. “And I know that it is going to be a huge political fight and that we are going to lose it, but do we need to make that statement?”

Laroche said he believes it is time for such action, noting that the state of New York no longer allows the import of live deer and elk. He predicted that the Game Commission and Department of Agriculture will “walk together” in trying to get an import ban on live cervids imposed.

Regardless, Putnam maintained that the spread of CWD is the death knell for deer and elk farms. “This is extremely serious … In my opinion, the deer farm industry is done – they have already killed themselves,” he said.

“It may take 10 or 15 or 20 years for all the infection they have spread to show up and be found. I can’t imagine the deer farm industry persisting with the infection that is going on around the state.”

Related to wild, free-ranging deer, a big fear among wildlife managers has been that the presence of CWD in the herd will discourage hunters from pursuing deer, even though there is no proven link between CWD and human health. That, too, is an open question, it seems.

“Hunters don’t want CWD here – we sold all of our disease management area tags, so at least hunters will go after them, and from our earliest experience, they would not give up their meat,” Putnam said.

“That may be true, but I have talked to three different biologists in Wisconsin, and in the hot zones of Wisconsin they have seen that people don’t want them,” Laroche replied.

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