Harrisburg — Extended archery hunting. A removal of antler restrictions. Unlimited bonus tags. Sharpshooters.
All of those things could be coming to Disease Management Area 2, the one place in Pennsylvania where chronic wasting disease has been found – and continues to be found – in wild, free-ranging deer. Already this year, five additional deer have tested positive for the disease, and additional testing remains to be completed.
The larger question – at least geographically – is what will Disease Management Area 2 look like?
That was the subject of much discussion when Game Commissioners held a work group session in Harrisburg on Dec. 5.
In its current form, Disease Management Area 2 takes in parts of five wildlife management units: all of 4A and parts of 2C, 2E, 4D and 4B. That’s somewhat hard to handle, said Brad Myers, director of the commission’s southcentral region office.
What he and others there and in the agency’s Harrisburg headquarters would like to do is expand unit 4A to encompass all of the disease area and then some, enough ground on the fringes to catch “fliers,” or CWD-sick deer that wander.
The entire unit could then be managed as the disease management area, Myers said.
The commission could take such steps as opening archery season earlier there, doing away with antler restrictions, going to two weeks of concurrent buck and doe hunting or perhaps even allowing hunters to shoot deer in bear season.
“If we’re serious about eradicating CWD from Pennsylvania, we need to take a no-holds-barred approach,” Myers said.
Executive Director Matt Hough echoed that sentiment. Wasting disease, he said, is unprecedented in terms of its potential impact.
“There’s no more serious threat in the last 50 years in the commonwealth. It’s an issue we’ve got to get under control,” Hough said.
Commissioners seemed to agree with that at their meeting. They didn’t unanimously get behind the idea of reshaping the management units and aggressively targeting deer within the new 4A, however.
Commissioner Tim Layton, of Somerset County, said he supports the move, at least for the most part. He’s not sure the new 4A would need to go as far west as proposed.
The mountains of the Laurel Highlands seem a natural barrier that’s kept CWD-positive deer from going that direction, he said. That should be factored in, he suggested.
But otherwise, he said he’s long advocated turning the disease management area into its own wildlife management unit.
It lies within his district, he said. He “doesn’t want to be the guy” who didn’t do enough and allowed wasting disease to spread, he said.
“We need to be proactive,” Layton said.
Commissioner Jim Daley, of Butler County, agreed. His first reaction to hearing the proposal was to be opposed, he said. Constantly tweaking wildlife management unit boundaries is not something the commission should be doing, he said. And this impacts five units at once.
But the commission, he said, treats special regulation areas differently than other units across the state because of their unique circumstances. This is another example of that, of where such an approach is needed, he added.
“To me, it makes a lot of sense,” Daley said.
Commission President Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, was not as convinced.
There are 11 townships, in Blair and Bedford counties, where the majority of CWD-positive deer have been found, he said. He’s all for targeting deer in that “core,” which accounts for a few hundred square miles.
He’s not as keen on treating all of a bigger, more expansive unit 4A that would encompass thousands of square miles the same way.
“I think hunters are going to revolt,” Hoover said. “It’s a balancing act, I get it. But politically it’s a nightmare.”
He predicted what will result if the commission goes that way.
“I can hear what’s coming. Hunters re going to say it’s another PGC conspiracy to eliminate the deer,” Hoover said.
Wayne Laroche, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, said he’s already attended 18 meetings with sportsmen and others to explain what the commission hopes to accomplish. Others are in the works, he added.
And he admitted that it’s important the commission get the public behind it. That’s why the agency is looking into doing a public survey, aimed largely at figuring out what control measures the public finds acceptable.
“If we don’t get support, in the long run, we’re doomed,” he said.
But the commission needs to do something to try and control if not eradicate wasting disease, he said. That might mean, he added, balancing the complaints of a few against the urgency to act.
He remains committed, meanwhile, to using sharpshooters to try and remove entire family groups of deer this winter.
His goal is to harvest deer in at least one location – at night, over bait – perhaps in March. That’s how Illinois wildlife officials have successfully kept CWD from spreading in their state, he said.
In months past, that was the only approach he wanted to removing deer. The commission is looking now, though, to use hunters to a larger degree.
Myers said one idea under consideration is, if all of 4A becomes a disease management area, to go to “bonus” tags. Hunters who shoot a deer in of the 11 “core” townships for CWD would be required to bring it to a check station to be tested. For every deer they brought in, though, they could get a tag to kill another, Myers said. There would be no limit.
Bonus tags might also be offered for the townships along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, which Myers labeled a possible “artesian well” for wasting disease.
The disease has been found just over the border in Maryland and there are fears sick deer will walk it into Pennsylvania, he said. The use of bonus tags there would be intended to stop that.
Commissioners will decide on whether to redraw unit 4A and implement other changes starting at their next meeting in January.