Draft outlines CWD controls

Removing antler restrictions, targeted hunting on list

More guns earlier in the hunting season, aimed at more bucks, is how the Game Commission proposes to manage chronic wasting disease starting in 2020.

After the Game Commission released its draft proposal for controlling chronic wasting disease Thursday and opened it up to public comment, outdoorsmen began submitting their comments in no time.

The window for comment ends in February 2020 and will be considered in the adoption of a final plan, to be implemented for the 2020-21 hunting seasons.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau and Game Commission CWD Coordinator Jared Oyster spoke to the Mirror on Friday about the draft proposal.

“With every part of this draft, it’s hunters first, the whole way through,” Oyster said.

Proposals to remove antler point restrictions and also for targeted removals are the parts of the proposal most commented on so far, he said. The Game Commission provides a comments form on its website that can be emailed or printed and mailed.

“Some of the commenters so far are in favor of removing antler point restrictions. Some are in favor of targeted removals. And some are not,” he said.

Another change wrapped up in the 27-page proposal entails combining muzzleloader season with other arms during an early firearm season from Oct. 17-24, 2020.

Muzzleloader enthusiast Ken Knisely of Roaring Spring doesn’t like that.

He foresees that change bringing more hunters with more sophisticated rifles to the woods during what is traditionally a time with a calmer, more primitive hunting feel.

“I think you will spook the deer early,” Knisely said.

Deer spooked early would congregate into groups earlier, which Knisely foresees could be counterproductive to the Game Commission’s goal of reducing CWD. Deer in groups for longer periods of time could increase the spread of CWD, he said.

Of course, it could also result in more deer hunted, and that is the Game Commission’s goal.

The Game Commission wants more deer to be hunted so that it has more samples to test for evidence of a CWD prevalence rate in deer populations.

The proposal calls for mandatory sampling from “control units” or areas encompassing a three-mile radius within Deer Management Areas where the status of the disease is yet uncertain.

To get a large enough sample size after the harvest, hunters will have to shoot more deer in those control units than usual. The proposal requires preseason deer density surveys to be conducted in each control unit to estimate deer density. The results may slightly adjust the Game Commission’s minimum sample size quota of 350 deer per control unit. That’s about four more deer per square mile than usual, Oyster said.

But it’s not just any deer that the Game Commission wants to be harvested.

Removing antler point restrictions is included in its proposal because in Pennsylvania, adult bucks are nearly three times more likely to be infected with CWD than all other deer, according to the Game Commission.

Removing antler point restrictions will allow hunters to harvest more bucks. Removing the restrictions would reduce the number of infected deer by 20 percent, preliminary research cited by the Game Commission suggests.

After hunting season, depending on the prevalence rate of CWD in the samples, the Game Commission may conduct targeted removals of deer after hunting season.

Target removal

views may vary

As the comments from hunters flow on targeted removal, one thing that may come into play is whether there is a difference in opinion between hunters in central Pennsylvania, including Blair County where CWD is heavy, and other parts of the state that may feel threatened.

Blair County hunters including Knisely are opposed to targeted removal of deer, but hunters in the northcentral part of the state where the elk range is may hope for targeted removal in Blair so that CWD does not spread to their areas.

“I think different people will have different reactions based on their knowledge of the disease and how big a threat they recognize it to be. There could be differences in opinion from region to region,” Lau said. “Ultimately, we will have a firm grasp on whether there are (differences in opinion). Aside from accepting public comment on the draft plan, we are conducting surveys that should spell out the any such differences. Keep in mind though, it’s not just the elk range (which is in the northcentral part of the state) where the disease hasn’t been detected in the wild. It’s the northeast, southeast and much of the southwest and northwest parts of Pennsylvania.”

The Game Commission did not have support for targeted removal in Blair County earlier this year. At that time, the Game Commission and Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State embarked on a study in Bedford and Blair counties to determine whether lower deer numbers can control chronic wasting disease.

Through targeted removal, USDA wildlife sharpshooters were set to kill large groups of baited deer. The Game Commission’s goal was to leave a density of 2,500 deer in the 100-square mile area of southern Blair and northern Bedford designated as Deer Management Assistance Program Unit 2874.

The hired USDA wildlife sharpshooters were turned away in late January and early February by private landowners who were upset and shocked at the Game Commission’s plan to bait and shoot large numbers of deer that may or may not have the disease.

A group of hunters in southern Blair County including Knisely became vocally opposed and took the issue up with state officials. The band of hunters successfully worked out a delay of the commission’s plan.

While the term “targeted removal” has reappeared in the new proposal, its meaning is different from the previous plan, Oyster said.

“These are much more smaller scale targeted removals,” Oyster said.

Before any targeted removals would happen under the new plan, first samples from the hunters’ harvest would be tested.

If the prevalence of CWD is at 5 percent or above in those samples, the Game Commission would seek to conduct targeted removals of family group deer in the areas where infected samples were identified in order to reduce the prevalence rate.

In the original plan, targeted removal to reach a certain density was a research objective. “We wanted to identify whether a certain density could control the disease. That’s no longer the objective. Our objective now is for a certain prevalence rate, not a targeted population density,” Oyster said. “We can work toward lower prevalence without large scale density reductions.”

CWD belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

Since the disease was first discovered in Colorado in 1967, it has continued to spread throughout North America. It has continually increased in prevalence and geographic spread in Pennsylvania since it was found in this state in 2012.

Data from other states suggests that with no change, in the next 10 to 20 years Pennsylvania will reach a CWD prevalence rate of more than 30 percent in areas where it was first detected.

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