To reduce the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer, you need to reduce the number of deer that are in an infected area.
That’s one of the takeaways Wednesday from the first of five virtual meetings to discuss the fatal disease in deer and elk.
The National Deer Association, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Wildlife Futures Program, is holding this series of meetings to update and inform the public on CWD.
Wednesday’s program was centered on southwestern Pennsylvania. The panel spoke about how deer that appear to be healthy but have the neurological disease and are able to spread it to others. The virus can take up to two years to run its course and the deer could appear to be healthy for much of that time.
CWD can be spread from deer to deer through interactions with their saliva and fecal matter in common feeding scenarios.
Over the past hunting season, Samara Trusso, wildlife management supervisor of the southwest division, said hunters provided 764 deer heads for testing in her 10-county area. Hunters put their deer heads in strategically placed collection bins around the region. Results are given to the hunter within several days. The state also is testing deer heads from butcher shops and from deer found dead along the highways.
In her southwestern district, only one deer tested positive for the disease and it was in Allegheny Township, Somerset County. To the east of Somerset County, in the south central region, the majority of the state’s overall 232 positive cases for 2020-21 were discovered mainly in Bedford County with 118, Fulton County with 75 positives.
Bryan Richards, wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., and the United States Geological Survey agency, said “CWD seems to have a pretty good foothold in Pennsylvania.” Unfortunately he feels the disease will continue to spread to other parts of the state as the deer are able to infect each other when they appear to be healthy.
He said sportsmen have to work together to keep the disease from moving to other parts of the commonwealth as well as further spreading it in existing locations. He said there’s ongoing research work to develop vaccines and improved testing techniques such as testing parts of the environment to see if the disease is present.
What has proven successful is reducing the deer herd through increased hunting opportunities and banning feeding and baiting deer and using attractants that lead to deer congregating together. He said there needs to be an “aggressive stand in a targeted manner” that includes incentives to remove deer from infected areas.
Another tactic in place prohibits hunters in disease management areas from removing parts of a deer that may contain CWD, such as the head and spine, from outside of that area. If someone moves the remains of an infected deer to a new part of the state, another deer may be able to contract the disease if it comes in contact with the infected remains.
Kip Adams, chief conservation officer with the National Deer Association, said, “Hunters are the ones who can save us…. We can beat this disease.” He said reducing the deer herd now will go a long way toward saving the future population.
Longer hunting seasons and more hunting opportunities such as increased doe license allocations will lower the chances of deer being able to spread the disease throughout the herd. The Game Commission recently approved a two-week concurrent buck and doe rifle season across the state. In the past, some parts of the state only had one week of antlerless rifle season. There are now a Sunday for archery deer hunting and a Sunday for rifle deer season.
In areas where hunters don’t reduce the herd to expected numbers, the panel discussed the option of using sharp shooters. The land owners would be asked to cooperate with state officials to further reduce the deer numbers with sharp shooters after deer seasons have passed for the year.
We need to “harvest deer at much higher rates,” Adams said asking successful hunters to share their extra venison with friends, family and food banks. He said for the future of hunting that sportsmen need to be vigilant to minimize the transmission of the disease.