Hunters demand answers on CWD

Photos and videos circulate on social media

What’s more mysterious: the spread of chronic wasting disease or the spread of rumors about how the Game Commission is handling it?

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is trying to slow down both.

On Thursday, area hunters met at the Plum Creek VFW and galvanized support for a lawsuit to get answers about the commission’s study of chronic wasting disease in Blair and Bedford counties.

Part of that federally funded study called for killing great numbers of deer in a 100-square mile area of those counties, but that was delayed for a year starting last week because of low landowner support.

USDA sharpshooters started contacting landowners in December to request permission to access land. But the actual shooting phase never occurred, commission wildlife biologist Jeannine Tardiff Fleegle wrote in an email.

Currently, the Game Commission’s deer trapping crews continue to capture and release deer in the area for tracking, Tardiff Fleegle stated.

Commission spokesman Bert Einodshofer said he knows hunters remain skeptical, so it bears repeating.

“There have been no removals going on, and I can’t stress that enough,” Einodshofer said Friday. “There wasn’t enough landowner support. We will be giving additional hunting opportunities to hunters this season. What they will be I don’t know yet.”

The commission estimated a deer population between 4,000 and 5,000 in the 100-square mile study area before the last hunting harvest.

The last harvest numbers are to be tabulated in a few weeks, but are not expected to be significant. Ultimately, the commission wants to decrease the population so that 2,500 deer remain.

If hunters don’t kill more during the upcoming season, U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters could be called next year.

And the process of asking landowners’ permission to access land might start again.

However, some hunters don’t want to wipe out the herd themselves either. They say they barely see deer in the woods now.

Tardiff Fleegle said observations rarely agree with actual population numbers.

Biologists travel defined routes at dusk using infrared cameras to detect the deer and determine deer population estimates.

“Observations, by hunt­ers, biologists or others, will rarely agree with the actual population for the simple fact that the observations are a minimum count. Animals are missed. For example, a few years ago, we posted a photo of 37 elk on Facebook and asked the public to tell us how many elk were in the photo. The counts ranged from 24 to 31. Even in a photograph of elk in a field, animals were missed. Take this same idea into the deer woods and one can easily see why we cannot judge an estimate based solely on what we see.”

Hunters on social media may have seen photos of a refrigeration trailer with a Department of Corrections stamp on it. Einodshofer said the trailer was borrowed from the DOC to store the carcasses from the targeted removal for testing. But the removal was delayed, so it’s empty. And the project is not affiliated with the DOC.

Kills in other counties

Although hunters are preparing to file a lawsuit, the commission has been communicating with hunters.

Past press releases confirm recent deer removals in Clearfield, Franklin and Fulton counties.

Einodshofer elaborated on the subject Friday in an interview with the Mirror.

Last year a removal of deer occurred in four square miles of state game lands 87 in Clearfield County because an old deer tested positive for CWD, he said.

The shootings were small-scale “flyers” conducted where new positive tests were found.

“Those removals are a quick response to get an assessment of whether more deer are affected because of this new case.”

In Clearfield the commission had a report of a sick-looking deer.

“We euthanized it, and the test came back positive,” he said. CWD is a brain disease and a deer can’t be tested alive.

“That deer was old and had lived there for a while,” he said. “We were concerned we had a brand new hot spot of CWD and we

didn’t want to wait months and months for hunting season.”

As a result, the commission killed 130 deer to test them. A minimum of 80 to 90 deer remained alive in the area in September after sampling, according to the commission.

“We killed more than we had in other places because it was a concern,” he said. “And additional deer tags and drop boxes were provided for hunters when the season started.”

None of the 130 deer taken in Clearfield tested positive for CWD.

“Those deer weren’t wasted. They were processed through a local processor and given to food banks. And the negative CWD results gave us confidence that we did not have a new hot spot,” he said.

But the question remained: “How did that deer show up there? We don’t know.”

With little certainty about the transmission and prevalence of the disease where it has been found in 26 other states, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and area hunters disagree on culling herds in order to slow the spread of the disease.

Einodshofer also commented on a targeted removal in Franklin County in 2017.

“In Franklin County, the shooting of wild deer was based on a deer farm where a deer went positive for CWD. It took place with permission of the property owner and after the season was done.

He said about 30 wild deer near the farm were killed.

“It was solely to get more samples to see if the disease had gotten out of the penned enclosure into the wild population. One of the 30 deer tested positive,” he said.

“Again, we have no idea how. We can’t correlate how the wild deer got CWD with the case in the penned enclosure,” he said. “But one out of 30 from a large deer population, tells you it could have been a significant threat.

“I encourage those putting speculation out there to contact us, and we will continue to respond to questions. There is no conspiracy going on,” he said.

Photos and videos shared on Facebook include dumpsters filled with deer and feed bags. Einodshofer said those are roadkill deer tested and the feed bags are saved from the phase of the study that required collaring deer for tracking purposes. The feed bags are reused as trashbags, he said.

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