In the predawn hours Monday, the first of hundreds of thousands of deer hunters will take to Pennsylvania's forests, rifles in hand and eyes scanning the trees.
For two weeks, they'll gas up trucks, eat early breakfasts and rent campgrounds across the state. Together with hunters throughout the year, they'll pump as much as $1.6 billion into Pennsylvania's economy, according to federal government statistics.
But with the discovery this year of the state's first wild cases of chronic wasting disease - a contagious illness that kills every deer it strikes - some hunters are weighing an end to years of practicing the sport here. And if other states' experiences are a guide, the disease's epicenter in Blair and Bedford counties could bear the worst of its economic impact.
"We've had people state, 'Well, I don't know if I'm going to hunt or not.' Some are saying, 'I definitely won't,'" said Barry Leonard, a Game Commission regional information and education supervisor. "And there may be these guys who don't hunt as hard as they normally would."
Judging from polls in other states and comments at local meetings, most loyal hunters might shrug at reports of another wildlife disease. Still, the possibility of a thinning herd and new restrictions in the central Pennsylvania mountains could compound a gradual decline in license purchases, particularly among the out-of-state hunters who spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the state annually.
"That's money you don't spend here," Penn State University Agricultural Economics Professor Jim Dunn said.
'Gets worse and spreads'
Since its discovery in the 1960s at a Colorado wildlife facility, chronic wasting disease - an illness related to the infamous "mad cow disease" - has been the subject of intensive research. With the realization in the 1980s that the disease had spread to wild elk and deer, state governments established rules and plans for its seemingly inevitable spread.
Researchers believe the disease is caused by a prion, a misfolded protein that affects the animal's brain. While no cases have ever been detected in humans, including those who eat the meat of infected deer, authorities have recommended avoiding infected meat "out of an abundance of caution."
Chronic wasting disease poses serious challenges to game researchers: It causes deer and elk to wither away and behave strangely, but other illnesses cause similar symptoms. There's no cure, and it can't be detected medically until the affected animal has died.
"It gets worse, and it spreads," a Game Commission official said at a March hearing in Roaring Spring.
With the discovery of wild cases in three neighboring states, Pennsylvania wildlife authorities developed a plan for when the illness crossed the state's borders.
In 2012, it did, and it came at a cost to the state and to some unfortunate business owners.
Chronic wasting disease turned up at an Adams County deer farm in November 2012, spurring officials to temporarily quarantine similar farms across the state. For weeks, worried farmers couldn't move animals into or out of their facilities as authorities sought an escaped, possibly infected deer in Huntingdon County.
During the ensuing rifle season, a two-county disease management area cost the Game Commission $500,000. Officials have said they can't afford to replicate the restrictions this year.
But the March announcement that the state's first wild cases had been found - all three in the ridges surrounding Morrisons Cove - could represent a far greater expense locally.
You need only stop at a central Pennsylvania restaurant in the first days of rifle season to see how many outside hunters flock to the region, Dunn of Penn State said.
"If you stopped to eat, it was clear that there were a lot of people coming from the southeastern part of the state to Blair, Centre, Cambria county to get their bucks," he said. "You go into what they refer to as the endless forest" stretching from the southern Alleghenies to northeastern coal country.
In 2011, more than 900,000 licensed hunters took to Pennsylvania's forests, the Game Commission reported. Ninety-five percent of those sought deer and other big game, and they spent 17 million days on their hobby that year, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study.
It's a sport conducive to big spending: Hunters can drop hundreds of dollars on a rifle or bow, as well as ammunition and clothing. Each year, they rent camps and stock up on food, and many subscribe to magazines and newsletters. The Fish and Wildlife Commission posited in a 2002 study that hunters' spending leads to a "ripple effect" three times the size of their direct purchases.
Numbers vary widely by year and agency, but a 2013 Fish and Wildlife Service survey estimated hunters spent more than $970 million here in 2011, the latest year for data. That spending employs thousands of people and generates millions in wages, according to Hunting Works for Pennsylvania, a newly formed pressure group that supports the industry.
The most direct economic benefit, however, might come from outside hunters, who cross into the state each year for its thickly forested wilderness. Last year, some 50,000 nonresidents bought licenses here - spending money that wouldn't have touched the local economy otherwise.
In 2001, they spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in Pennsylvania, the federal government found. At the time, no other state benefited more from visiting hunters.
That could change, at least in the Southern Alleghenies, as the Game Commission establishes a wide management area in a bid to contain chronic wasting disease. Officials sent 88,000 letters to hunters both inside and outside the state, warning them that attempts to take high-risk deer parts out of the central Pennsylvania quarantines would be met with fines.
On Internet forums, hunters from outside the area decried the new rules.
"My opinion, total overkill and will turn damn near everyone into a law breaker, even if they're not trying to be," one said.
"I'm glad I don't hunt in either of those areas," another said.
'It's out there'
Other states, where authorities have battled the disease for years, offer a glimpse at Pennsylvania's possible losses in the coming seasons.
In a paper published in 2002, the year the disease first struck Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Richard C. Bishop predicted little damage to the economy, but more serious effects to hunters themselves and the local industries that rely on them.
"Wisconsin deer hunters could easily lose between $70 million and $100 million in recreation benefits this fall. More bad news about CWD would make the losses even larger," he wrote. "This is not especially large in the context of the economy as a whole. However, some people, particularly in rural areas, will be adversely affected as urban hunters from Wisconsin and other states spend less money in rural areas of our state."
Today, Pennsylvania officials cite Wisconsin as a case study: Attempts to eradicate the disease there failed, Leonard said, and today some area herds reportedly carry a 25 percent infection rate.
Polls conducted in Wisconsin shortly after the disease's discovery found that 36 percent of state hunters would consider ending their hobby as a result, Bishop reported. Analysis conducted with a colleague showed that between 10 and 20 percent would probably stay away that year, he said.
A similar paper published in 2004 by Andrew F. Seidl and Stephen R. Koontz, both professors at Colorado State University, indicated that a 10 percent drop in hunting could cut millions from the economy in the hard-hit state's rural northwest. Leonard said a noticeable drop in Pennsylvania hunting for a few years is likely, based on other states' experiences.
"Then it may come right back, once people become accustomed to the fact that, hey, it's out there," he said.
License sales this year have been close to expectations, he said, but officials are carrying out surveys to determine how hard the sport could be hit.
The Wisconsin study indicated much of the loss would ultimately return to the economy, as local hunters would simply spend the same money on something else. But in Pennsylvania, where out-of-state hunters inject millions into local business, their money would vanish.
Staying closer to home
"It wouldn't happen instantly because it doesn't happen until people get discouraged," Dunn, the Penn State economics professor, said of business losses. "If you go out and don't get anything, you lose interest."
A thinning herd means fewer chances to see a deer, and most hunters will only spend so many kill-less seasons before they give up the hobby, he said. It's unclear whether local deer populations will drop noticeably and, if they do, how long it might take.
Just as hunters' spending ripples into the wider economy, a slow decline could affect businesses not closely related to the sport.
"This stuff doesn't directly hit every business proportionally. ... Some businesses are going to be hit harder than others," he said.
He offered restaurants as an example: Few restaurant owners would say they rely solely on hunters - many sportsmen gather privately or at fire halls, some noted - but that added business could have wider effects on the industry in December, Dunn said.
"It can be an important part of the regional economy even though it doesn't have to be 80 percent of the revenue," he said. "Twenty percent fewer customers may mean 80 percent less profit."
As the state prepares for its first hunting season under the effects of chronic wasting disease, there's little certainty on economic effects in either the short or the long term. Authorities have offered alternatives for visiting hunters, including local butchers removing high-risk parts to avoid quarantine fines, but changing participation won't be known until license sales are released.
"There's a lot of camps within the disease management area," Leonard said. "We don't know whether those people who use the camps are going to stay closer to home."