‘Dr. Deer’ challenges the Pa. Game Commission’s perspective on chronic wasting disease

Readers of this column should be aware that I have generally been in support of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s efforts to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease. Therefore, I was rather skeptical when I drove to Blair County on July 13 to hear a presentation on chronic wasting disease by whitetail deer expert James Kroll, aka “Dr. Deer,” whose views often fly in the face of the policies supported by most state wildlife agencies.

The event — attended by about 100 hunters in the Hollidaysburg Junior high School auditorium — was cosponsored by the Sportsmen for the Future and the Pavia Sportsmen. Last winter, Sportsmen for the Future successfully stopped the Game Commission’s plans to have sharpshooters kill hundreds of deer in Blair and Bedford counties.

Kroll, who hails from Texas, has authored more than 100 articles about deer and deer management in both scientific and popular publications. He is a professor emeritus at the Institute of Whitetail Deer and Management and has been the deer trustee in Wisconsin. Kroll’s views regarding CWD in wild deer populations are sometimes criticized because of his business ties to deer farming and private hunting ranches.

According to the organizers, the purpose of bringing Kroll to Blair County was to educate hunters and let them see that there is another side to the CWD story than what they hear from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“We would like to help educate the public so that they don’t get all of their information from the Game Commission,” said Shane Corle, who represented the Pavia Sportsmen. “We are looking out for the future of hunting for our kids.”

Added Sportsmen for the Future President Matt Johnson: “People tend to remember what they hear first and that has been information from the Game Commission’s side. We want them to hear our side. We are opposed to the large-scale culling of deer. Dr. Kroll knows about CWD and how it is spread.”

And show the “other side,” Kroll did.

“I scare a lot of people in state agencies,” Kroll said at the beginning of his talk. “To my chagrin, I have learned how poorly read most agency people are. They talk to each other a lot and they are as bad as the public in perpetuating false information.”

Kroll outlined the history of CWD and concentrated on the scientific facts surrounding CWD’s cause, transmission, and whether or not it is likely to affect people.

In countering the Game Commission’s claim regarding the effectiveness of mass culling, Kroll noted that CWD is not density dependent. Instead, it depends on the frequency of an individual deer’s contact with CWD prions. Although CWD can be spread through urine, Kroll said that the concentration of prions in urine is so slight that hunting with urine-based lures would be highly unlikely to cause a deer to get the disease.

CWD can be spread through saliva, also. However, Kroll referred to some of the studies utilizing saliva, blood and other modes of possible transmission as “Frankenstein experiments” — not representative of what might happen in the real world.

“When would a deer be injected with contaminated blood or be forced to drink 50 milliliters of contaminated saliva in the wild?” he asked. “I felt sorry for the deer.”

Kroll argued, “CWD is caused by a prion — a misfolded protein,” not a bacteria, as hypothesized by Dr. Frank Bastion. With his promise to develop a field test for the disease, Bastion gained recognition in this state as a CWD researcher backed by the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania. Although Kroll did not mention Bastion by name, he questioned he hypothesis and the value of a test for hunters to use in the field.

“If such a test could be developed, just think how it would play out,” Kroll said. He surmised that a hunter with a deer testing positive in the field would likely let it lay — abandon it and walk away. This, according to Kroll, would serve to spread CWD, not help hunters.

He further claimed that if Pennsylvania followed all of the current advice regarding CWD — targeted removal, mass culling, reducing the age structure, etc. — it would be the end of deer hunting as we know it. And we will still have CWD.

Kroll’s presentation lasted about 90 minutes before the question-and-answer session. He was strong on what Pennsylvania should not do, but weak on what we should do. In a nutshell, Kroll thinks that CWD is not as contagious as some think, and he doubts that it will ever drastically lower the deer population because deer do not live long enough. He said that the chances are slim to none that a human would get sick from eating the meat from a CWD infected deer.

Based on the audience’s attention and their questions afterward, it appeared that Kroll’s presentation was well received by those in attendance. Kroll is an engaging speaker and I left more knowledgeable about CWD, but wondering who is right.

According to Johnson, bringing Kroll to Pennsylvania to speak cost about $4,000. Considering the expense, he was pleased with the presentation, but underwhelmed with the turnout.

“We were big-time disappointed with the crowd,” Johnson said. “I think that it has a lot to do with the time of year. If this would have been held in January or February we probably would have filled the place.”

Johnson’s Sportsmen for the Future organization is steadfast against mass culling or targeted removal of large numbers of deer. Kroll’s presentation certainly supported the group’s position.

“I understand hunters who think that we should let them cull the deer in our area (DMA 2) so that CWD doesn’t get to their area,” Johnson said. “When only one or two percent of the deer that the sharpshooters kill have CWD, and it costs about $600 for each deer, you have to wonder if it is worth the effort and expense. No matter how much culling takes place, CWD will likely spread to the entire state.”

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.

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