PGC: No ban on the use of deer urine

Harrisburg — Pennsylvania Game Commissioners, at their recent meeting here, again discussed but did not pull the trigger on banning hunter use of deer urine.

They made it clear, however, that they would not hesitate to make the move – aimed at helping to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease among the state’s wild deer – in coming months if better alternatives don’t emerge.

Deer urine is thought to carry prions, the infectious agent responsible for causing the always fatal to deer and elk disease. Hunters often spray deer urine onto soil to attract bucks.

Last year Vermont and Virginia  implemented such a ban, and Alaska and Saskatchewan previously banned hunter deer urine use. But the Game Commission is not ready yet.

“Other states are doing it, but people will argue that there has never been a case that urine has been demonstrated to have created an infection of CWD,” said Wayne Laroche, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.

“But at the same time, we are banning deer parts from states that have CWD, and there has never been a case that I’m aware of that deer parts have been directly related to an infection, either. That’s not to say that neither of those have ever occurred, that’s just to say that it has not been documented.”

Despite the risk, Laroche was not ready to urge commissioners to implement a ban. Although that may well be coming.

Related to CWD, there are only a few factors the commission can control, he pointed out. “But before I can come forth with a recommendation, I really think we should go to Ag (state Department of Agriculture) and have a discussion with them, then after we have taken a comprehensive look at the situation, we should act.”

Commissioner Timothy Layton said he will support a ban if he is convinced it is needed. Right now, for him, the jury is still out. 

“I don’t think that anything is off the table, as far as CWD is concerned,” Layton said. “We see reports saying urine is not an issue and we see reports saying that urine is an issue. As commissioners and staff we have a lot to digest.“

But CWD is a huge concern in Pennsylvania because of its deer-hunting heritage, he added, and it would be irresponsible for the commissioners not to take needed action.

Commissioner Brian Hoover, as he has for months on this issue, again argued against a hunter deer urine use ban.

“I don’t want to see us take a step that is not proven in creating economic hardship for an industry that’s viable in the state,” he said. “I just want proof that this disease can be transmitted by urine – and  then I will support a urine use ban in the state.”

Hoover said that he wanted to see the commission work with deer urine manufacturers through the Archery Trade Association – better known as ATA – to develop safeguards to prevent urine being collected from sick deer.

“Can they come up with a way to screen deer urine for CWD prions?” he asked. “We don’t know, but we will give them a chance to find out.”

Maybe, but Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, signaled he is growing impatient with the continuing jeopardy that hunter deer urine use may be subjecting the deer herd to.  

“The deer urine industry may be a multimillion dollar industry,  but deer hunting is a billion-dollar industry,” he said. “So when we start comparing the two, if we have to make sacrifices, we will look to the deer urine manufacturers. “

One of the largest such operations in the state, Nationwide Scents, located near Millersburg,   is an ATA member that is involved in a nationwide initiative with the trade group to develop procedures to keep deer infected with CWD out of the urine-production stream.

The family owned business, which has been regulated under the Department of Agriculture for years, has  20 years’ experience caring for whitetails. Currently the farm’s more than 300 deer are involved only in urine collection and breeding, according to manager Elam Lapp.

Although state law does not require double fences around deer farms, Nationwide Scents maintains double fences. And it maintains a “closed herd,” meaning no animals are bought or sold.

“Our farm has been certified CWD-free for the past 12 years,” Lapp said. “I think the message that is not clearly put out there is how well regulated we actually are. You know, the rumor mill says that deer farms traffic deer from farm to farm, but that is not the case. 

“We would not jeopardize our license for anything like that. We are required to test every deer that dies over 12 months old, their brainstem and lymph nodes, and sending them to the Harrisburg Department of Ag lab where they do a CWD test.” 

Lapp said ATA-affiliated deer-urine collectors have met with various state wildlife agencies, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission, about how to maintain healthy deer herds.

The ATA and its scent-manufacturing members, according to Lapp, have worked with the state agencies and key CWD and wildlife disease experts to create an industry initiative – the ATA Deer Protection Program – that is intended to help minimize the spread of CWD through the use of cervid urine based products.

Rick Lowe of Lowe’s Whitetail Deer Scents, Landisburg, has also been in the deer urine collection business for over 20 years. While he admits a ban on urine-based scents would be detrimental to his company, he understands the need to protect Pennsylvania’s deer herd. 

“They’re just trying to do what they can to ensure our kids get a chance to experience deer hunting the way we have,” Lowe said of the Game Commission’s fact-finding mission. “I’m not going to be selfish and say I only want to sell scents; I want what’s best for the future of our sport.”

Lowe worries that a ban will hurt a lot of people in his industry, but he’s glad the commissioners are not ignoring the problem. 

It’s good that they’re looking for answers, I just hope they base their findings on some clear, hard facts without making any hasty decisions,” Lowe said. “I don’t think it’s really fair to say, ‘Hey, you can’t use urine at all’ without having some reasonable facts behind it.”

Lowe said the discovery of CWD in the state’s deer herd has already affected his business to some extent. 

He is currently at the point where he could expand and add another building to meet customer demand. However, he is reluctant to invest any more money in his company with such an uncertain future in the industry. 

“I’m kind of at a standstill,” he said. “But we’ve already begun the process of preparing for what may come down the line.”

Lowe’s company already offers a generic synthetic deer lure that is made without urine, as well as several different types of cover scents that include deer bedding scents using body odor, but not urine.

“I’m truly glad they are looking into it and trying to solve this problem,” Lowe said. “At the end of the day, we all need to work together and do what’s best for our deer herd.”

(Writer Tyler Frantz contributed to this report.)

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