State Game Commission plan to cull deer herd angers some

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Photo illustration by Nick Anna

Hunters and landowners are shocked and irate at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s plan to drop a local population of deer by about a couple thousand from February through April.

The commission has hired USDA wildlife professionals to bait and shoot deer with quiet suppressed rifles at night.

The sharpshooting of deer in southern Blair County is for a pilot study to see if lower deer populations can control chronic wasting disease.

There is no known cure or scientifically tested way to control the disease.

The commission’s plan is quite literally a shot in the dark.

Deer population at stake

The fatal and highly contagious brain disease is reportedly endemic in Blair County, and the commission believes the future of the whole state’s deer population is at stake if nothing is done.

The commission’s study area comprises an area of about 100 square miles, including municipalities in Blair and Bedford counties.

Last year, in that area there were 4,000 to 5,000 deer after the hunting season. Through targeted removal process, the objective is to leave 2,500 deer, said Bert Einodshofer, information supervisor of the commission’s south central region.

Not all, but many landowners disagree with the commission.

They are refusing the wildlife professionals’ request to access their land with bushels of corn as bait during the day and to return at night to kill deer using silenced guns — things that are illegal for hunters to do.

Forester, hunter and landowner Eric Eminhizer of Hollidaysburg almost didn’t believe it at first — that the agency responsible for conserving wildlife would want to slaughter deer on his property without any real evidence that it would stop the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Come hunting season, sportsmen doubt they and their children will see many deer.

“You want to bait them and shoot at night. And then you expect us to buy a hunting license?” Eminhizer said.

Eminhizer said he was upset when commission officers visited his foresting business office last week, as well as his parents’ realty group. Together the family owns 1,200 acres in the Locke Mountain Road area.

“I said there’s no way I’d buy a hunting license again,” he said.

Wildlife professionals left Eminhizer with some literature — “CWD: Addressing the threat together.”

The brochure urges landowners to partner with the USDA when targeted removal of deer is needed. It includes a photo of a deer with a caption: “Does this deer have CWD? It is impossible to know by looking at a deer. Infected deer can look healthy when spreading CWD.”

The target threshold of 2,500 deer post-removal within the study area is based on a guess, Eminhizer said.

“We don’t know the actual prevalency rate of chronic wasting disease in that area. We don’t know. But by reducing the deer numbers, we want to see if it will ultimately keep it low like Illinois.”

Disease management

There are 26 states that have found chronic wasting disease. Illinois started taking management action around 2004, and targeted removal of deer kept the CWD prevalency rate under 2 percent for areas in that state where the disease was found, he said.

The commission throws its support behind studies that show deer populations with high levels of the disease have lower survival rates and are not sustainable unless deer hunting opportunities are reduced.

However, local hunters hold up studies that show targeted removal is not effective: Professor Emeritus of Forest Wildlife Management James Kroll has written that Illinois, though touted as the prime example of CWD management, has 16 infected counties and in Wisconsin, the result of employing sharpshooters was “angry hunters and landowners and we still have CWD.”

However, Einodshofer asks hunters to think beyond the immediate upcoming hunting seasons.

Positive results for CWD in free-ranging deer doubled for four consecutive years in Pennsylvania. Positive results surged from two in 2013 to 76 in 2017.

In total, there were about 170 positive tests since 2012.

“We know it is increasing. Looks to continue to increase,” Einodshofer said.

“A hunter’s great-grandkids may see a natural reduction in numbers based on infection rates. And there’s no putting more deer on the landscape if Mother Nature is limiting the numbers herself,” he said.

Wildlife professionals began approaching landowners to request cooperation with targeted removal several weeks ago and have been successful in many cases, Einodshofer said, though he could not say how many.

Targeted removal will occur on lands where permission is granted as well as state game lands.

He stressed that the targeted removal will be limited.

“It’s actually a very small proportion of that study area,” he said.

The main area for targeted removal is State Game Land No. 147 and surrounding areas in Blair County. The game land borders Lock Mountain Road for miles. The game land is located on the slopes of Dunning Mountain south of the pass containing the Juniata River consisting of four parcels located in Blair, Frankstown, Huston, Taylor and Woodbury townships. Roaring Spring and East Freedom are also in close proximity.

The commission said it has given hunters the opportunity to kill deer at random during the season.

“Hunters said ‘Let us do it.’ We listened to them and said to provide us those deer for sampling.”

Protecting the future

Einodshofer said deer numbers would rebound quickly after the off-season cull.

“We are talking about a small area but future ramifications to the whole commonwealth. You can’t stop deer from naturally moving on their own. Chronic wasting disease hasn’t spread that much, but through natural dispersion patterns, they typically travel up to

5 miles.

“To protect future generations of deer, we want to keep this number low so it doesn’t slowly spread,” he said.

“We know this is not popular within the deer-hunting community, but we really have to think about this for future generations.”

While it is widely accepted that the disease can cause extinction of host populations, little is known about its transmission — and so little is truly known about the best way to stop it from spreading.

In 2003, researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale examined the theoretical and empirical support for population culling.

The study ultimately acknowledged that a threshold density may exist, but only if the disease is dependent on population density.

On the other hand, it’s widely held that the disease’s transmission is frequency-based or based on the premise that opportunities for contact between an infectious individual and susceptible individuals are unaffected by population size.

“Strict frequency-dependent transmission does not permit the existence of a threshold host density below which the pathogen cannot persist,” according to the study.

While it may persist, the commission hopes targeted removal of deer will slow or contain its spread.

The Game Commission started its current study last year with the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State.

It began with placing GPS collars on deer to monitor them.

Spreading the word

The commission stated that targeted removals starting in a matter of days will occur only with landowner permission.

“They have no permission here,” said Matt Johnson of Roaring Spring at his home on Rouzer Drive.

Only one of the farmers on his road, he said, have allowed the commission to set up baiting nets. He’s taken time off from work to make people aware of the study. He and his neighbors are spending a few thousand dollars on billboards urging people not to allow the commission onto their land.

His Facebook posts have been shared by a hundred or more other people.

“I’m doing this for my children,” he said.

He’s well informed about other states’ experience and well-versed in rebuttals to the commission’s arguments for the targeted removals.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it. Let’s say, they take the deer population in this area down to 2,500. In winter they herd up. That disease will spread quicker and faster than if there were 5,000 deer.”

Johnson’s sentiment echos the researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

That study stated: “If transmission is truly frequency-dependent, incomplete eradication of infected hosts might only hasten the ultimate extinction of that host population without preventing disease spread to other populations.”

Johnson claims his efforts to make people aware of commission’s plans are largely the only reason the commission has put out a press release about the study.

Other rumors have spread about it. Landowners heard that the commission plans to use helicopters to run deer off of land where they are not allowed to conduct targeted removals. Asked about helicopter use, Einodshofer said that is “totally untrue.”

Vernon Walter of East Freedom leases land in the area. He said there are a lot of passionate people who don’t like what the commission is doing.

“My gut tells me this could get bad. It scares me,” he said. “I don’t want to see anyone get arrested or get hurt.”

While some farmers want to see the deer dead, a lot of farmers enjoy seeing them on their land, he said.

“I have farmer friends and don’t know one that appreciates what the game commission wants to do here,” he said.

Removals controlled

Einodshofer said hunters have asked the commission that if it’s going to cull the population, then why hire USDA wildlife professionals to do the baiting and the sharpshooting? Why not let hunters do it?

“First off, it is a safety and liability issue,” he said. “USDA Wildlife Services teams are professionals who are continuously trained for all types of lethal wildlife removal with the most up-to-date equipment in all settings. The removals need to be in a controlled setting for many factors, from identifying targets, placement of shots, removing groups of animals quickly, recording the specific data and handling of the carcass.

“Chronic wasting disease is still localized and if it continues to escalate, it will spread across the commonwealth, ultimately limiting any chance we have at control,” Einodshofer said.

“We would be remiss as an agency if we sat back and did nothing to find out which and what methods are best at slowing the spread of this fatal disease.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.