Top officials say policies, public non-compliance hampering CWD control efforts
Pennsylvania Game Commission CWD Coordinator Wayne Laroche and state Department of Agriculture Assistant Director Dr. Kevin Brightbill recently addressed members of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association during the organization’s annual conference in Franklin, Pa.
The two officials gave an update on Disease Management Area 2 control measures and offered proposed solutions to combating the rising problem of chronic wasting disease across the state. However, both lamented policies and actions by the public that make it difficult to keep the disease from spreading.
“There’s no other way to say it; all the deer that get CWD are going to die,” Laroche said. “It’s urgent because of this exponential curve marking an increase in the disease, and especially the new cases popping up in new areas. How much do we get on the landscape before there is a tipping point where we won’t have the resources to keep up with it?
“We know from our wardens in the field that a lot of people are non-compliant with our requests to not congregate deer. We have found prions in the soil at feed lick sites, and new research suggests that ground contamination can transfer from one deer to the next. A deer can look like the most beautiful deer you’ve ever seen, but it could be CWD positive. There’s no way of knowing until you test it,” Laroche said.
The CWD taskforce has taken an aggressive approach to controlling the spread of prions by establishing disease management quarantine areas, calling in sharpshooters for targeted removal, and pellet pile collection for DNA sampling.
“On State Game Land 87 in DMA 2, sharpshooters euthanized 126 deer in a 3.6-square-mile area, and 14 additional deer were taken to the drop box by hunters,” Laroche said. “We tested all 140 deer and did not get a positive for CWD. That doesn’t mean we wiped it out of the area, but it has moved us forward in our ability to respond.”
Roughly 8,000 deer samples were sent for testing in 2017, and 72 have been confirmed CWD-positive to date, but some results have not yet come back from the lab. One writer commented that, like other hunters, his brother has venison sitting in his freezer that he has not eaten because he’s still waiting for a call about the results.
“We have contacted hunters whose deer were infected but have not called everyone whose results were negative,” Laroche said. “The CDC says that we should keep all prions out of the food stream, so if you know you have an infected sample you should not eat it.”
“That said, there are thousands of people who have eaten diseased deer unknowingly around the country. So far we don’t know of anyone who got sick from eating it, but I would not knowingly risk it,” Laroche said.
Brightbill echoed that sentiment, referring to the macaque monkey study that showed monkeys were able to contract CWD from infected deer meat, although a secondary follow-up study showed no transfer of the disease between species.
“CWD is generally a species-specific disease, and the macaque monkey’s DNA profile is more closely aligned to a whitetail than a human profile, but I’m not lining up to try it,” Brightbill said.
He said much of the roadblock lies in legislative policy because the Department of Ag manages deer farms, while the Game Commission manages wild deer. They collaborate to the best of their abilities, but the current structure is not conducive to solving all the problems, and the regulations are not always understood.
“We have about 23,000 captive deer in Pennsylvania,” Brightbill said. “When you choose to bring deer into the state, you must either enroll into the Herd Certification Program or a Herd Monitoring Program, which is eligible for intrastate movement only.”
The Herd Certification Program is the national standard for moving deer across state lines, which requires five years of negative tests and program compliance, emphasis on ID movement records, 100 percent testing, fencing, inspection, and annual verified inventory.
There are 673 herds with HMP status, which are eligible to move deer only within Pennsylvania. This applies to any operation not already enrolled in HCP, but comes with only a 50 percent testing requirement. Brightbill said most hunting/shooting preserves are HCPs, and of the 33,500 captive deer tested since 2002, 46 were CWD-positive. Their operations have since been depopulated.
Brightbill’s laundry list of proposed solutions to the CWD crisis included a uniformed-parts ban both inside and outside the fence, interagency cooperation and enforcement to only allow movement of deboned meat, clean skullcaps and capes, and educating cervid farmers, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to not move parts.
He also stressed a focus on management factors that will improve bio-security, such as maintaining a younger herd in captive preserves, reducing feed and hay consumed on the ground, and density management to promote browsing versus ground grazing to lower the risk of transmission.
“If we really care about deer and hunting — and I do; I’m a hunter myself — we are going to need to work together to create policies that make sense,” Brightbill said. “We’ve seen a marked increase in incidences of CWD in the wild and also in captives, and something has to change.”
“If we can’t get a handle on this, I predict that DMA 2 will eventually become the equivalent of the CWD Hot Zone in Wisconsin,” Laroche added. “This whole problem is a failure in policy because the current legislative protocol is not helping us control this issue.”