Biggest threat from CWD: hunters quitting?
It’s time, we think, to address the elephant in the room regarding chronic wasting disease … Many hunters just don’t believe it represents the existential threat to deer that they have been told it is.
Perhaps the skepticism is stronger among Pennsylvania hunters than those in other states. But maybe not. An Illinois researcher who has studied deer hunters related to CWD recently said he thinks deer hunters are pretty much all alike, no matter where you find them. And he is a Hershey, Pa., native, so he has some insight.
Game Commission officials have been talking about increasing CWD educational outreach to hunters and the public to tell people what’s at stake if CWD spreads through wild deer here.
Commission leaders clearly see the need to educate the public after the agency’s major deer cull in southern Blair and northern Bedford counties was stopped by elected officials enlisted by a citizens group, which erected billboards, staged demonstrations and started a GoFundMe Page to fund a threatened lawsuit against the commission.
And it’s not clear whether landowners will go along with targeted removal of deer around sites where CWD-positive deer have recently been discovered.
The commission, we believe, should try to answer the two simple questions that a dozen or so readers have asked us over the last few years — “What happens if CWD spreads widely? Will it really wipe out deer?”
The only real answer to those questions that we can find is a five-year study published in 2015 by University of Wyoming researchers that found CWD will cause a mule deer herd near Converse, Wyo., to go extinct in 41 years. The study is the only one we know of that puts numbers on the problem, calculating a 19 percent decline in that deer population annually.
When we tell hunters and the public here that if they don’t allow targeted deer removal to proceed, the number of CWD-positive deer may double each year — and soon Pennsylvania could be like Wisconsin, where 30 percent of the deer have the disease in places – we need to tell them what is next. What it means …
Will deer numbers fall sharply? To date, so far as we can tell, they have remained stable across the country, leading some skeptics to claim CWD worries are overblown. We need information to counter that claim if we want folks to cooperate with targeted removals in the effort to slow the spread of the disease.
Elk numbers in the West, incidentally, seem to be holding up especially well in the face of CWD. Populations like the one in Rocky Mountain National Park — where CWD prevalence has grown to be significant — have not declined appreciably. How do we explain that to skeptical readers?
We realize the answer may be that scientists don’t yet know the answers – but they have strong suspicions. If so, we should say that. But truthfully, that might not get a buy-in from hunters — at least not in Pennsylvania. It seems to me the most imminent threat from CWD is that many deer hunters may give up on the sport.