Chronic wasting disease continues to spread among Pa. deer

No cases of chronic wasting disease have been reported in Centre County, but management issues to our south increase the likelihood of the disease infecting county deer.
No cases of chronic wasting disease have been reported in Centre County, but management issues to our south increase the likelihood of the disease infecting county deer. For the CDT

Several events occurred recently in the battle to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease across Pennsylvania. It was not good news.

CWD, commonly referred to as “zombie deer disease,” is a fatal disease of deer and elk that causes significant behavioral changes along with clear weight loss over time. It is believed to be caused by a prion, a misfolded protein molecule, and was first discovered in Pennsylvania in a captive deer in Adams County in 2012. In November of 2012, it also turned up in wild deer in Bedford County.

It has since spread into Blair, Huntingdon and a few other neighboring counties. Disease Management Area (DMA) 2 was created and subsequently expanded several times. All or parts of 13 counties now lie within DMA 2 — the only place in the state where CWD has been regularly found in wild deer.

Fortunately the disease has not surfaced in Centre County — at least not yet.

Last year the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) offered 3,000 extra antlerless deer permits in DMA 2 in an attempt to lower deer densities in the areas with the highest number of CWD-infected deer. At the same time they started a study in an attempt to measure deer dispersal and other things.

It is believed — and it follows common sense — that lowering deer densities would slow the spread of the disease. The study was supposed to shed light on this issue.

But hunters did not significantly lower the deer numbers, so the Game Commission moved to the next step, which is using U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters to selectively remove deer in the areas with the highest rate of infection.

“Targeted removal,” as such shooting is called, “is the only known effective method of slowing or stopping CWD,” said Jared Oyster, the Commission’s CWD coordinator.

This was echoed by Duane Diefenbach, Leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit stationed at Penn State. “The best tool that we have at this time is to reduce deer densities,” he said.

Added Chris Rosenberry, who heads the PGC’s deer and elk section: “Ideally, hunter harvest would be the only action we were using. However, targeted removals can help reduce the deer populations more quickly.”

The plan was to conduct targeted removal of deer this winter. However, those plans went awry after a local citizens group started by Roaring Spring resident Matt Johnson erected anti-targeting billboards, held protests and planned a lawsuit against the commission.

Johnson claimed that there was a cover-up and that this planned targeted removal of deer was a surprise. Meanwhile, every informed hunter should have known that this has been discussed for several years and used on one farm in DMA 2 last winter.

Johnson thinks that, if necessary, hunters should harvest the deer, not sharpshooters. I asked Johnson about the 3,000 extra licenses that the Commission offered last fall.

“I know that the Game Commission offered extra antlerless deer permits within the disease management area,” Johnson acknowledged. “My friends and I bought those permits and just burned them. I didn’t know that it would come to this.”

Nevertheless, Johnson caught the ear of State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, and Gregory met with the Commission. Sadly, the next day, Feb. 5, the Commission issued a news release calling off the targeted removal operation.

The news release claimed “lack of access to private land” as the reason for its decision. Considering Johnson’s protests and the negative publicity, that should be no surprise.

These developments caused Diefenbach, the Leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit stationed at Penn State, to post the following question on the Deer-Forest Study blog: “Given what I know, I’d say we aren’t slowing the spread of CWD across Pennsylvania. So guess who’s winning the battle to decide how to manage CWD?”

CWD is a statewide problem, not a Blair-Bedford County problem. It is unfortunate that one elected official was swayed by hunters who purchased the extra antlerless deer tags, burned them and then complained about the Game Commission attempting to manage the deer and the disease.

I think that it is time for elected officials from Centre, Lycoming, Clinton and other counties to the north to support the Game Commission in their efforts to slow the spread of CWD.

On another front

The Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with State Rep. David Maloney, R-Berks, held a half-hour press conference in the Capitol Rotunda on Feb. 4. They announced what they called a “major breakthrough” in chronic wasting disease research. They also detailed a three-year commitment to help fund certain CWD research.

Unified Sportsmen biologist John Eveland said, “We are here today to announce that we have discovered the real cause of CWD.” According to Eveland, Louisiana State University researcher Frank Bastian has discovered a bacterial cause for the disease. The previously unknown species of bacteria is called Spiroplasma.

Widely accepted current research identifies a misshapen protein, a prion, as the cause of chronic wasting disease, as well as similar diseases in sheep, cattle and humans. Bastian claims that the prion is merely a “marker” that is produced by the Spiroplasma bacteria, rather than the cause.

Eveland outlined Dr. Bastian’s 10-year plan, which included what some would consider rather outlandish claims — including a way for hunters to test their deer for CWD at the time of the kill (within a year), a way to protect humans from CWD (within 18 months), a way to produce an injectable vaccine for captive deer and elk (within two years), a way to design an oral or nasal vaccine able to be administered to wild deer and elk (within three years) and on and on, including testing cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Creutzfelt-Jakob diseases within seven years.

Eveland called Bastian’s discovery “historic,” and predicted that he would “win a Nobel prize” for his work. Others do not see it that way.

“Dr. Bastian’s research isn’t new, and the vast majority of disease experts disagree with his theory,” said Kip Adams, wildlife biologist and Director of Conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association. “I wish he was correct and we could solve the CWD problem, but I side with the rest of the wildlife community that CWD is a prion disease.”

State agencies were quick to respond to the assertions made at the news conference. A joint news release came out hours after the Unified Sportsmen conference.

“Following today’s press conference on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture would like to make clear that decades of research have provided abundant evidence that prions, or misfolded proteins, are the infectious agent of CWD, and this hypothesis is accepted by state agriculture and wildlife agencies across the U.S.,” the news release stated.

“While alternative theories exist, they have not been thoroughly researched. Meanwhile, CWD remains a serious threat to Pennsylvania’s deer and deer hunting.”

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com