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Pennsylvania Game Commission unveils new chronic wasting disease plan
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Pennsylvania Game Commission unveils new chronic wasting disease plan

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Deer in winter

White-tailed deer are active during autumn.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a new plan for battling chronic wasting disease.

At its quarterly meeting July 25, the board of commissioners unanimously adopted a new Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan. It focuses on prevention, surveillance and management of CWD, an always-fatal neurological disease caused by misfolded proteins — called prions — that affects white-tailed deer, elk and other cervid species.

CWD was first detected in Pennsylvania in a captive deer facility in 2012. It was found in free-ranging deer just a few months later.

In the years since, it’s expanded both geographically and in a growing percentage of the deer infected with CWD.

“Development of this plan was truly a collaborative effort,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “Our wildlife-management staff consulted with many of the nation’s leading CWD experts from both the public and private sectors. Agency staff also took into account the many, many comments we received from passionate deer hunters all across the state over a monthslong public comment process.

“The result is a plan that’s based on the very best available science and puts our hunters first in line when it comes to opportunities to manage this disease.”

While there’s a lot that remains uncertain about CWD, containing the disease where it already exists and keeping prevalence rates low is critical. And right now, the best available science suggests that the only practical way to reach those dual goals and address CWD on the landscape is by reducing deer abundance.

Hunters can contribute by participating in Enhanced Surveillance Units. They are areas around certain high priority CWD-positive animals. Samples collected within an ESU will determine the extent of infection in areas at the leading edge of disease expansion.

Hunters will have increased opportunities to harvest deer in ESUs. The response plan calls for reducing deer numbers in ESUs by one additional deer per square mile. That’s one deer for every 640 acres.

The commission will also manage CWD within Containment Zones, small areas immediately surrounding a new, isolated CWD detection. Harvests there will be carried out with landowner cooperation in an effort to remove deer that may have come in contact with the newly discovered CWD positive deer.

Samples collected in Enhanced Surveillance Units and Containment Zones will allow the Game Commission to assess CWD and monitor the effects of management actions, with the goal of slowing and stopping the spread of CWD.

“Samples are key to the success of this program,” said Dr. Lisa Murphy, co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program and resident director of the PADLS New Bolton Center. “A top priority of the Wildlife Futures Program, a collaborative program between the Game Commission and Penn Vet, is providing a fast and accurate CWD test results.

“One of our primary goals is to prepare our staff, laboratory space and equipment so that we can provide hunters and the Game Commission with quick turn-around times on testing so decisions can be made in a timely manner.”

The response plan outlines some additional strategies meant to control CWD.

For example, it proposes a ban on the movement of high-risk parts — brains, spinal cords and spleens — from what’s called the state’s CWD “Established Area.” That’s where the disease is established on the landscape and where CWD is unlikely to be eradicated.

The intent is to reduce the movement of CWD prions from higher-prevalence areas to lower-prevalence areas within Disease Management Area 2.

“Chronic wasting disease is a serious threat to Pennsylvania’s hunting heritage, the biggest we’ve faced in our lifetimes,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission President Charles Fox. “The fight ahead of us will be a challenging one.

“We’re committed as an agency to doing everything we can to win this battle for the whitetails we hold so dear. But we can’t do it alone. We need the help of all Pennsylvanians, and especially our deer hunters, to help manage our deer herd as well as this disease.”

Fighting CWD is not a lost cause, experts agree. But it will require collaboration between wildlife managers and stakeholders to sustain the state’s hunting heritage and protect Pennsylvania’s deer and elk for current and future generations.

“The Game Commission’s CWD Response Plan represents new hope for Pennsylvania to contain this disease where it already exists and minimize new outbreaks,” said Krysten Schuler, wildlife disease ecologist at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab. “We’ve seen what happens in other states choosing the ‘do nothing’ approach. CWD not only expands geographically, but disease prevalence rates within deer herds climbs exponentially.

“That doesn’t have to be Pennsylvania’s future. If the commission and hunters partner now to support disease response actions, deer and deer hunting can both continue to thrive in Pennsylvania for the long term.”

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