Decision time nears for CWD outbreak in wild Pennsylvania deer

Of the deer harvested, 53 percent were bucks, compared to 63 percent during the same period in 2016.

At the most recent Game Commission meeting, a guy testified about the growing menace of chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania, and the threat it poses to the state’s deer-hunting heritage. He pleaded with commissioners to take the threat seriously and act in an aggressive, proactive way to slow the spread of the disease in the wild deer herd.

After he finished, Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, noted that he was the first ever to testify to commissioners about the threat of CWD to wild deer and deer hunting here. Putnam has lamented that Pennsylvania hunters don’t seem to grasp the grave threat of the always fatal to deer and elk disease – it dwarfs all other Keystone State deer and deer-hunting concerns, he says.

Keeping this in mind, recent developments related to CWD in Wisconsin – where the disease was discovered in 2002 – should grab the attention of Pennsylvania sportsmen. What is unfolding in Wisconsin emphasizes how important efforts to slow the spread of the disease here will be in the next year or two. 

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2010 ended its effort to thin the deer herd in infected areas after growing public backlash. The agency’s plan since then – like the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s – has been to only monitor the disease with no attempts to control its spread.

But now that strategy appears on the verge of costing Wisconsin’s economy billions of dollars, and Pennsylvania officials are taking notice. The Wisconsin whitetail population is being decimated by CWD – and it is now spreading even more quickly.

From 2014 to 2015, the percent of deer testing positive rose 3 percent. In 2014, 6.1 percent tested positive. Of the 3,133 deer tested in 2015, 9.4 percent (295) came back positive for CWD. Deer in half the Badger State’s counties now have the disease.

Now a pair of Wisconsin lawmakers have asked the Gov. Scott Walker administration to consider changes to how the state deals with CWD. They say the problem needs immediate attention because deer hunting brings in more than a $1 billion to the economy every year – just like in Pennsylvania.

The lawmakers recommend emulating what the state of Illinois is doing to contain CWD by continuing to thin its deer herd. In Illinois, the Department of Natural Resources is doing what Wayne Laroche, director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, has been talking to game commissioners about doing the past few months.

Among actions Wisconsin lawmakers are urging are intensive deer culls at sites where new CWD infections have been discovered. That’s the same course of action Laroche has been advocating to commissioners in Pennsylvania, currently along the Interstate 99 corridor, where CWD is perhaps common in wild deer.

It would be a brave move by the Game Commission – wiping out dozens if not hundreds of deer in Blair and Bedford counties to slow the spread of CWD – one that surely will not be popular with the public (or maybe hunters.) But it is an action that should be taken to protect deer and elk in other regions of the state.

Perhaps what is occurring in Wisconsin will provide game commissioners with the courage to do it. It is not a pretty prospect but increasingly it looks like the right thing to do. Why wait?

 

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