Hunters are the key to combatting chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania deer, wildlife experts say.
Chronic wasting disease, a fatal, incurable disease with no vaccine, was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012. Since then, more than 700 deer have tested positive in the state, in 24 counties.
The disease can have negative impacts on deer populations and hunting, since people are discouraged from eating deer that could be infected.
Based on the way it has spread in other states, it could be found in 30% of deer tested in the state within a couple of decades if the current trajectory continues. There are ways to manage it, but without hunters getting involved, those strategies aren’t likely to work well.
“Hunters are the ones that are going to help save us,” said Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Association, in a May 5 webinar discussing the disease in southwest Pennsylvania.
Deer are the most popular game for hunting in America — there are about 11 million deer hunters in the country, Adams said. Since the disease is always fatal, it can damage deer populations long term.
“If you like deer, this is not a good deal,” Adams said.
Chronic wasting disease affects deer and related species, like elk and moose. It’s in the same group of diseases as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Deer catch it directly from each other, or through contact with a contaminated environment. It can take more than a year to show symptoms, so it’s hard to tell if a deer is sick.
While there is no evidence so far that humans can get sick from eating infected deer, experts strongly advise people not to consume venison meat unless that deer tests negative. Chronic wasting disease has been found in 26 states and is most common in older deer and bucks.
In areas that have chronic wasting disease, numbers of hunters might decrease, which could mean less funding for wildlife management. Areas that have had infected deer can remain contaminated for years, decreasing land value.
Since there is no treatment or vaccine, wildlife experts have focused on tracking and preventing its spread, and removing deer that are or may be infected.
Humans can accidentally spread the disease by transporting high risk parts of deer, like heads, backbones and spleens. Feeding deer and using attractants that encourage deer to gather in groups can also spread it.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission restricts those things in disease management areas, which are based on 10-mile buffer zones around where infected deer have been found, said Andrea Korman, CWD biologist with the commission.
Hunters can take deer heads to collection containers to have their deer tested. Some parts of Pennsylvania also have high risk parts disposal containers available.
In established areas, where there are consistently infected deer from year to year, the goal is to keep the rate of positive samples under 5%. After the disease reaches that point, it starts to spread much more quickly. For the 2020-2021 season, so far, a little under 2% of the wild deer tested were positive for the disease.
The only way to manage the disease in an area that has it is to cut down on the number of deer. The commission gives hunters more opportunities to hunt in disease management areas.
Checking in at stations to provide samples of deer and deboning deer before transporting them to avoid moving high risk parts out of a disease management zone might seem inconvenient. Population reductions also aren’t necessarily popular with hunters. But they can help keep deer populations healthy.
“It’s an inconvenience that is absolutely worth it, to me,” said Adams, who is also a deer hunter.
It’s also important to remember that because it takes so long to show symptoms, and because many deer die from other factors before the disease, most people will never come across a deer that has wasted away in the wild, Adams said.
Last year, many hunters didn’t actually harvest any deer, and most of those who did harvested only one. Adams encouraged hunters to harvest more of both antlered and antlerless deer during seasons. He added that hunters can donate deer they harvest, if they and their families don’t need more than one deer.
“There’s lots of families that need them,” Adams said.
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