Deer

A young white-tailed buck is pictured on Oct. 1, 2018, along Covered Bridge Road in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is counting on hunters to stop the spread of disease in the whitetail deer herd this autumn.

Biologist Andrea Korman, the game commission’s Chronic Wasting Disease actions coordinator, provided an overview of the final disease response plan  that she presented to the commission.

Korman said two goals were set for the final plan, which went through two separate public comment periods over six months, tallying 885 reactions.

“First is to minimize the impact of CWD on Pennsylvania deer and elk populations. And the second is to increase stakeholder understanding of, support for and participation in CWD management efforts,” she said.

Addressing the first goal, Korman explained that four geographic areas have been established to attack the problem. Disease Management Areas (DMAs) are the largest of those four and have been in effect since 2012.

“The purpose of a DMA is to reduce human-related activities that amplify and spread CWD, and to increase the probability of early detection of CWD spread from known locations.”

On a smaller scale, Korman described “established areas” as those where CWD single cases will be maintained at or below 5% in hunter-harvested deer, and to minimize the risk of human-caused movement of high-risk parts to other areas.

“This 5% threshold was chosen because states like Wisconsin, West Virginia and Colorado have data that show once this threshold is crossed, these prevalence increase drastically, making management of the disease even more difficult,” she said.

Currently, wildlife management unit (WMU) 4A, and a portion of 2C, “encompasses about 90% of our CWD detections,” admitted Korman.

Most all of Fulton County and the eastern half of Bedford Count are within WMU 4A.

The third geographic areas are labeled “enhanced surveillance units,” said Korman, which are 30- to 80-square-mile tracts that try to detect the disease in “new or high-priority areas through increased sampling.”

She added: “An annual sample of approximately 250 to 300 deer will fulfill the target sample size and can be achieved with hunter harvest and landowner cooperation.”

The fourth and smallest areas are “containment zones” of about three square miles. In these zones, the most high-risk deer will be removed from the area immediately surrounding a new and isolated case.

“Removing deer that have come in contact with an infected deer gives us the best chance of containing the disease,” Korman explained.

She addressed the importance of human-assisted spreading of CWD. That includes taking infected deer parts from (or into) DMAs, feeding deer and using urine-based lures.

“This is to minimize human-induced congregation of deer, which will limit disease transmission through direct animal-to-animal contact,” Korman said.

“We want hunters to have the first opportunity to help in managing CWD.”

Rumors of PGC sharp shooters killing deer over bait piles at night have circulated among hunters for years. As far as any validity to those concerns, Korman said, “Targeted removal is a strategy proposed in the plan. However, these are very small operations that would primarily occur after hunting season. Their applications would be in containment zones, as the purpose of these areas to quickly remove deer that may have been exposed to a CWD-infected individual.”

Korman admitted that the tactic would greatly depend on landowner cooperation, “as removals would only occur where access has been permitted.”

As part of the plan’s second goal, the game commission is hoping that hunters will have their harvested deer tested for CWD. The PGC will collect voluntary samples from head collection bins, deer processing businesses and road kills in and around DMAs.

Improving surveillance methods, encouraging public input, and fostering communication are all vital in returning the deer herd to a healthy state, said Korman.

“There has been a total of 473 CWD-positive free-ranging deer since the initial detections in 2012,” said Korman.

According to a graph Korman used in her presentation, 95,766 deer and 1,404 elk have been tested since 1998.

“No date, no elk, and no deer from within the elk management area tested positive for CWD.”

The numbers revealed of the 15,686 whitetails tested last year, 204 (1.3%) were positive.

Korman finished her presentation with a stern warning: “Without change and additional actions, CWD will continue to increase and spread across the commonwealth.

“For management strategies to be effective, we must be prepared for a sustained long-term commitment of resources. For Pennsylvania to be successful in management of CWD it will require continued support and participation from all stakeholders.”

JOHN RUCOSKY is a features writer at the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown.