It always has been a matter of when, not if, given the events of the last few years.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is in Pennsylvania’s elk range.
To be clear, no one has detected yet the always fatal ailment that affects deer, elk, moose and other cervids in a Pennsylvania elk.
But Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials last week announced the discovery of CWD-infected deer on high-fence captive farms in Fulton and Clearfield counties. They found a sick doe on the Fulton County facility, a hunter-killed sick buck on the Clearfield one.
As part of its CWD containment strategy, whenever an ill deer is found, the Pennsylvania Game Commission puts a pin on a map highlighting the infection site. Then it draws a 10-mile-circle around it.
The area inside the circle becomes a disease management area.
That puts certain rules into play. Hunters can’t use urine-based deer scents, nor can they move certain deer parts out of the disease area, for example. Deer feeding is banned, too.
Discovery of the Clearfield deer did not require creation of a new disease management area. Rather, the commission expanded disease management area 3’s boundaries.
That puts the elk range in a disease zone “for the first time ever,” executive director Bryan Burhans said.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
First discovered in Pennsylvania on a captive deer facility in 2012, CWD has spread across the state exponentially, both in terms of geography and prevalence.
“It appears we’re currently observing the early stages of a CWD infection as it begins to pick up momentum. And we can look to other states to see what the future holds if we do not take action,” Chris Rosenberry, head of the commission’s deer and elk section, said.
That future isn’t bright.
In West Virginia and Wisconsin, Rosenberry said, CWD infection rates exceed 25 percent. Pennsylvania is headed the same way within 10 to 15 years if nothing changes, he said.
What to do is the question, though.
Containing the disease
The commission went into this winter hoping to employ a two-part strategy.
Part 1 involves “fliers,” or newly documented cases of CWD that pop up outside of known infection areas. Jared Oyster, the commission’s CWD coordinator, said the commission plans to use sharpshooters to kill deer, likely 100 to 200, within a 2-mile radius of such animals.
The goal, he said, is to remove and test enough deer to be able to say with 90 percent certainty that no more than 1 percent of the deer in the area are CWD positive.
Such “targeted removals” are “the only known effective method of slowing or stopping CWD,” he said.
“If we don’t do this, it’s almost like we’re managing the deer blindly,” Oyster said.
Part 2 of the strategy was to be a test of sorts.
The commission made available 3,000 additional antlerless deer permits this past hunting season for a portion of disease management area 2 in southcentral Pennsylvania. The hope was hunters would lower deer numbers.
That’s how other states are trying to control CWD’s spread.
To boost that effort, the commission intended to use sharpshooters to remove a presumably large, but never totally defined, additional number of deer from that area.
“Ideally, hunter harvest would be the only action we were using. However, targeted removals can help reduce deer populations more quickly,” Rosenberry said. “And time is the important component here.”
Hunters in that area revolted, though. Some bought billboards opposing the targeted removals and threatened to sue the commission. Landowners, meanwhile, largely refused to allow the commission to shoot deer on their property.
As a result, the commission recently abandoned that plan.
Burhans, delivering his annual report to members of the state House of Representatives game and fisheries committee this week, told lawmakers the commission will attempt to further “engage the public” before moving forward.
In the meantime, lawmakers themselves proposed some possible solutions.
Rep. Bill Kortz, the Allegheny County Democrat who serves as minority chairman of the committee, suggested the commission remove or relax antler restrictions in CWD infection zones. That would allow hunters to help lower the deer population, he said.
“It just seems to me a logical step to let them do it rather than the sharpshooters,” Kortz said.
Rep. David Maloney, a Berks County Republican, suggested removing antler restrictions statewide. A handful of other states have gone that route recently, he said.
The commission is looking at antler restrictions, at least within disease management areas, Burhans said. But it might be pointless, he said.
The commission has been able to find “no evidence” antler restrictions promote the spread of wasting disease, he said.
That’s because of young bucks. They’re the “most dangerous” whitetails in the woods, he said.
In dispersing, meaning leaving their birth sites, they travel more often and further than any other deer, he said. And they can take disease with them.
Burhans said the problem is they move before growing their first visible set of antlers. So, if they are indeed sick, they already have spread disease before hunters could shoot them, antler restrictions or not, he said.
Maloney had another suggestion.
“My concern has always been that we’re at 50 years-plus, nationally, with no solution” to the CWD problem, he said.
He suggested the commission consider getting on board with some new research.
The Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, a hunter group, held a press conference in February announcing plans to back work being done by Frank Bastian, a professor in Louisiana State University’s school of animal sciences.
Bastian claims CWD is caused not by rogue prions or deformed proteins, as long has been believed, but by a previously undiscovered species of bacteria.
“This breakthrough discovery is a game changer in that it’s now possible to develop a vaccine, an antibiotic, to prevent and cure CWD,” said John Eveland, Unified’s scientific advisor.
Eveland said Bastian expects to have a field test that would allow hunters to know if a deer was diseased immediately upon killing it ready within 12 to 18 months, an injectable vaccine for use on captive deer and elk with 24 months and an oral or nasal vaccine for use on wild deer and elk within 36.
He predicted Bastian’s work, which he said could lead to curing 15 percent of misdiagnosed human Alzheimer’s patients worldwide in time, would win him a Nobel Prize.
Others, though, aren’t buying that.
The National Deer Alliance said no other researchers have replicated Bastian’s findings, “despite rigorous attempts to do so.” In fact, it added, all other CWD research worldwide points to prions as its cause.
The “hallmark study” of the disease already won a Nobel Prize, it noted.
“There is international agreement among scientific agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that prions are believed to be the infectious agent that causes (CWD and similar diseases),” said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist and co-director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab.
There are a number of reasons that viruses and bacteria aren’t viewed as potential causes of the disease, Schuler said. They include “lack of an immune response, resistance to normal disinfection procedures, environmental persistence for years to decades and intensive genetic study.”
The Deer Alliance recently came out in support of the commission’s CWD management strategy. A number of other groups did likewise: the Quality Deer Management Association, Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists, Archery Trade Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Pope and Young Club, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
That plan is an evolving one, Burhans said. But the commission must continue to do all it can to combat wasting disease, he said.
Ideally, Burhans said, it will enlist the aid of hunters to do so — there’s no other choice, really.
“To ignore this disease will lead to one certain result: CWD will increase in prevalence and spread throughout the state,” he said. “When CWD prevalence rates get too high, it is unlikely we can turn back the clock.”