Pennsylvania Game Commission's new plan for battling CWD includes reducing deer abundance

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The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a new plan for battling what many consider the biggest wildlife-management challenge of the 21st century.

And it’s counting on hunters to help put it into action.

Acting at its quarterly meeting on Saturday, the agency’s 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 affect white-tailed deer, elk and other cervid species.

One of the steps in the plan is reducing deer abundance.

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.

So, the Game Commission is taking additional steps to mitigate the effects of the disease.

Getting public input: The Game Commission sought public input on the plan over a five-month period from September 2019 through February 2020. It received 447 comments. Scientific experts from other agencies and organizations also contributed.

Those comments led to substantial changes to the plan. Accordingly, the Game Commission put a revised version of the plan out for a second round of public review in the spring.

The public, agencies, and organizations submitted an additional 438 comments. Those were incorporated into the final version of the plan ultimately accepted by the board of commissioners.

“Development of this plan was truly a collaborative effort,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans in a news release. “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 months-long 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. The Game Commission said 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: 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. That doesn’t equate to eliminating deer herds. The response plan calls for reducing deer numbers in ESUs by only one additional deer per square mile. That’s one deer for every 640 acres – or 485 football fields worth – of landscape.

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 that newly discovered CWD positive deer.

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

Additional strategies: 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.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission provided information for this report.