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Pennsylvania Game Commission taking steps to curb spread of chronic wasting disease

JOHN RUCOSKY
(Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat (TNS)
Pa. Game Commission logo

The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners concluded its two-day meeting on Tuesday, approving new opportunities to mentored unlicensed hunters, first-time Sunday hunting and efforts to curb the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state’s deer population.

Changes aimed at combatting CWD from spreading further will be in place for the 2020-21 season, which also includes extending archery season deeper into the rut until Friday, Nov. 20, and keeping the Saturday after Thanksgiving as the firearms season opener for the second year in a row.

The disease is mainly prevalent in a large swath of south-central Pennsylvania. that stretches from Sunbury, Carlisle and Gettysburg, west to Patton, Armagh and Ligonier. A smaller CWD area encompasses most of Jefferson County, and parts of Indiana and Clearfield counties.

The agency revised its CWD Response Plan at Monday’s meeting after commissioners heard reports from experts nationwide, and will still take into consideration any public input until it finalizes its plan in May.

“Since the very beginning of CWD the commissioners have always asked for a rapid response to CWD,” said Commissioner Brian Hoover from District 8 in the state’s urban southeast corner. “I think we’re in the position we’re in today because we didn’t have that rapid response.”

He added, “That’s going to be the answer in having this thing spreading any further, and from getting hunter backlash, because we’re talking about having to deal with a much larger area, where in the very beginning we were targeting square miles; a few square miles and taking out a family group.”

He contrasted Pennsylvania’s response to its neighbor to the north.

“New York got it right. They went in and they cleared out an area quickly, and got the disease out of there, and I think that’s the only way to stop the spread.”

When asked if CWD is found prior to hunting season where the disease has not yet spread, the commission’s CWD Action Coordinator Andre Korman said, “I believe our plan now, is that we would want to jump on that with targeted removal rather than waiting for hunting season to roll around.”

That’s easier said than done since the agency does not have the authority to conduct targeted removal on private property.

“Responding quickly and letting that thing not grow is very important, but the second part of that is having the team necessary to gain access,” said the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management Director Matthew Schnupp.

“And that’s really where we have to have landowners, and to some degree hunters, participating and supporting this, because if it pops up, and it’s in the middle of an oasis of private land and we can’t gain access …” (the problem remains).

The Bureau of Wildlife Management was asked to study the implications of removing antler restrictions in some CWD areas, especially in Wildlife Management Units 4A and 4B.

Focus group: The commission made decisions based partially on focus groups about issues such as the Saturday deer-firearms opener. Tim Layton, who represents District 4 (Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties) said, “We had a lot of empathy for the camp owners who said that this just isn’t working out for them. We understand that this is changing their tradition.”

But the focus group study showed otherwise.

“The hunters that we talked to that were between the ages of 20 and 40 – this is absolutely what they want.”

Layton said, “In my perspective, I think we need to look at this at least another two years, to find out what the trends are and where we’re going with this, to see if it in fact, is encouraging younger hunters, and even out-of-state hunters, because they’re coming in for Thanksgiving as well.

“I think we’ve picked up numbers there, that we just can’t deny. We have to pay attention to those and move forward with something that we think is working to increase license sales and participation.”

Mentored program: Previously open only to youth under 12, the mentored hunting program has been expanded to include – well, everybody.

Unlicensed mentored hunters of all ages may hunt deer, turkeys, rabbits, snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse, mourning doves, bobwhite quail, pheasants, crows, squirrels, porcupines, woodchucks and coyotes.

The board decided that “because the program is a tool to recruit new hunters, it only made sense to open it to everybody.”

Overlap seasons: When asked if hunters who wish to muzzleloader hunt bear or archery hunt antlered deer on the same outing, Jason DeCoskey, the commission’s director of Bureau of Wildlife Protection, said, “That early season when there’s all those overlaps, you will be able to carry dual – muzzleloader and archery equipment.”

The rule also applies to an archery bear season that overlaps with a muzzleloader deer or bear season.

Another proposal to allow deer hunters with multiple tags to harvest a second deer before tagging their first passed 6-2. And a measure that allows hunters to purchase up to four DMAP permits per DMAP property, (except on properties where the commission opts to retain the two-permit limit) such as on state forest lands, was adopted as well.

Land transactions: In land transactions, the PGC added 700 acres to existing state game lands (SGL), including a donation of 222 acres adjoining SGL 42 in Jenner Township, Somerset County, accessible from Roaring Run Road, from Marion Leonard on behalf of Leonard’s Land Preservation LLC.

Non-hunters using state game lands are required to wear fluorescent orange from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, except on Sundays, but now that hunting will occur on three Sundays within that timeframe, a proposal requiring them to wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent-orange clothing on the head, chest and back combined could be approved in July.

Another change involved updating language to keep pace with the gun industry’s introduction of smaller centerfire calibers such as .17 Hornady, and .204 Ruger, which could have previously been interpreted as being legal for deer and bear. The requirement has been updated to reflect a minimum bore size of 6mm.

Other adopted changes were made to the state’s hunting-guide permit regulations, and the use of e-bikes on game lands was tabled until July.