Commission rethinks CWD approach

As disease threatens deer herd, officials work to earn trust

The Pennsylvania Game Commission wants to establish its credibility with hunters in Blair and Bedford counties where the agency says chronic wasting disease threatens the future of the deer population in the entire state.

Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans has acknowledged hunters’ mistrust led the commission to withdraw its plan to use sharpshooters to kill deer in an attempt to slow the spread of CWD.

“The public engagement in this process has to be first and foremost,” Burhans said. “They don’t want to trust what we want because it affects their hunting season next year. We are asking people to make a sacrifice in order to benefit the deer herd for their kids. And while that may seem simple, and who wouldn’t agree with that, there are a lot that don’t.”

Starting in late January, local hunters and landowners organized to deny the Pennsylvania Game Commission access to property to carry out a targeted removal of potentially 2,000 deer in Blair County for a pilot study to determine whether lower deer herd numbers would slow the spread of the disease.

A video recording of a March 25 Game Commission work group meeting offered a window into one commissioner’s frustration and perception of the resistance it has faced from hunters in the south central region.

During the meeting, Com­missioner Tim Layton said that he believes only a few hunters are holding up the plan.

Layton is one of the eight unpaid game commissioners appointed by the governor.

“For us to not be able to counter what literally seven, eight, nine or 10 hunters are doing to get on a camera to say we don’t know what we are doing is just — it’s frustrating to me because we are spending $1.8 million a year on research and all they are doing is waking up in the morning and saying ‘They are not doing what we want them to do,'” Layton said.

Hunters organize

Hunters in south central Pennsylvania formed a group called Sportsmen for the Future.

Ken Knisely of Hol­lidaysburg is the group’s legislative coordinator.

While the group’s leadership is about 10 people, the support is in the thousands, Knisely said.

The commission’s plan for USDA professionals to herd and shoot deer at night came to a halt because they were being turned away by property owners, and an official halt was announced when state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, took his constituents’ voices to the commission, along with Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford.

Commissioners point to Illinois where targeted removals have been carried out each year since 2002. They say that action kept the CWD prevalence rate at 2 percent.

“We have got to do something from a public relations standpoint that can bring everybody in to say, ‘Look, they actually do know what they are doing. We want to be Illinois. … I’m just passionate about this,” Layton said.

However, hunters in south central Pennsylvania believe the death toll for healthy deer shot during Illinois targeted removals is too high, and the disease still persists. In addition, hunters dispute the commission’s estimates for deer numbers in south central Pennsylvania and say targeted removal of deer will thin the herd unnecessarily.

In the battle for the best path forward, Burhans believes the Game Com­mission had the full support of Legislature.

“For the exception of, say, one, we have had great support from Legislature,” he said.

In a followup with the Mirror, Game Commission spokesman Bert Einodshofer said Burhans was not singling out Gregory or any specific legislator as the “one.”

The CWD issue also has gotten attention from Pennsylvania members of Congress, including U.S. Rep John Joyce, R-13th District.

“The message from my constituents has been loud and clear on this issue: they want me to push for a solution that finds a cure for the disease, without hurting the hunting community,” an emailed statement from Joyce said. “The people of the 13th District were outraged by the Game Commission effort to reduce the deer population without first trying to find a cure through science. That is why I co-sponsored HR 837, which would commission a federal study for CWD without killing deer, and I am in the process of working with my colleagues in the House to properly secure funding for that legislation through the appropriations process.

Joyce is also planning to partner with Congressman Glenn Thompson on an additional piece of legislation related to HR 837 and CWD.

“Of all the district-specific issues that I have been working on since I have been in Congress, CWD is certainly in the top three,” Joyce stated.

Joyce and Thompson both attended a March 10 meeting of about 300 hunters in Blair County that featured ecologist and biologist John Eveland, who is working with a team of scientists to create a CWD vaccine in the next five years.

False hope?

Burhans alluded to the development of a vaccine and said it was giving hunters false hope.

“We’ve been doing outreach events over the past two years. The problem is there is a lot of misinformation out there now. We’ve heard there’s going to be a cure in the next three years,” he said. “We know it won’t come to fruition, but people want to believe it. Those are things we are in constant battle with.”

As the Game Commission moves forward, it must partner with the public, said Matthew Schnupp, wildlife management bureau director, during the working group meeting.

“We learned a lot this year. Everyone is well-aware of what went down with folks in the south central region and what we’ve gone through with the research project,” he said. “We had to recalibrate everything. Our path forward was not working. We had sent USDA out to knock on doors. We got some feedback that maybe we need Game Commission employees doing that.”

Schnupp said there many things that the commission must do differently as it attempts to re-evaluate a plan to address CWD.

“One of the major things we are taking initiative to do is get input from other states and researchers and getting them involved to provide third-party criticism of what is successful across the nation and what is not successful,” Schnupp said.

He said the CWD working group is setting the table for a plan.

Schnupp said that plan might be no less aggressive or without a need for targeted removal, but the difference would be more public engagement.

“We want to engage the right partners — engage the NGOs, engage the public, engage other researchers at federal and state level — so that as we develop it and roll it out we do it with the right message and the right response.

“I hear a lot of folks say, ‘You have to spend more time setting a foundation throughout the year … establishing credibility and letting people know about this rather than just ‘boom, here it is a week before when the gun’s in-hand,'” Schnupp said.

Stopping plan right move

Schnupp said he believes the commission was right to withdraw its targeted re­moval planned for the study in Blair County.

“And I think we bought a lot of credibility because we didn’t push through with our path and put our head down and say ‘we are not listening to you’ and come in and at all costs do what we have to do,” Schnupp said.

“We stopped, stepped back and now we are getting input from the right people to build a sustainable plan that is aggressive enough to have an effect.”

But the clock is ticking. The feeling at the table was that the commission doesn’t have the capability of sitting back for long. The question floated around the table: “Are we looking at taking action a year from now, two?”

CWD was discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012 and has spread.

Game Commission CWD coordinator Jared Oister said more than 90 percent of positive tests for CWD over the years are found in Disease Management Area 2, he said, pointing to a chart of Blair and Bedford counties.

While all 2018 CWD samples are not yet analyzed, “We already have 70 positive samples this year,” he said. “I presume to have 100 positives when analyses of all samples are completed. There are still 4,000 samples that need to come out of the lab. There were about 6,000 taken total. Those samples included hunter submitted samples.”

He said each year there is an exponential increase of positives.

“If we don’t change anything drastically, we will be on the same trajectory in 10 years and be at 20 to 30 percent prevalence within our core area in Disease Management Area 2,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at (814) 946-7435.

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