Are we doing, watching or just wondering?

Commentary

Many years ago, one of my most influential mentors advised me, “Young fellow, there are three types of people in the world: those that make things happen; those that watch things happen; and those that sit around and wonder what happened. Which do you want to be?” At first, that assessment seemed somewhat of a whimsical oversimplification.

As I became older and more involved with issues and personal pursuits, however, I found myself aligned, as much as possible, with those that do rather than those who watch and wonder. I’ve never liked being in a position where I could only watch or wonder what was going to happen. But that is decidedly how I feel regarding the ongoing spread of chronic wasting disease to our wild deer herd in Pennsylvania.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Game Commission released the latest set of gloomy statistics about the spread of CWD. In 2017, 78 wild deer tested positive for CWD, compared to 25 deer in 2016. That’s triple, and that’s just the ones we know about. Of that total, 75 infected deer were documented in Disease Management Area 2, which now comprises 4,614 square miles that includes all or parts of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Clearfield, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Somerset counties. The other three deer infected with CWD were in DMA 3, which includes 916 square miles in parts of Armstrong, Cambria and Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties. DMA 4, which includes 364 square miles in parts of Lancaster, Lebanon and Berks counties, was also created earlier this year when CWD was detected on a captive deer farm in Lancaster County. DMA 1, established in 2012 when CWD was detected on a captive deer farm in Adams County, has been eliminated after no further cases of the disease were found in free-ranging deer in that sector.

With the latest expansions of the three current DMAs, about 5,894 square miles of Pennsylvania are now within a DMA. That’s almost 13 percent of the total area of the state since the first three wild deer infected with CWD were detected in 2012 in southern Blair and northern Bedford counties. And despite the PGC’s best efforts to control the spread of CWD, this insidious disease continues to expand its range at ever-increasing rates each year. Their response to CWD has been to enact several largely enforceable, if not mostly ineffective, measures like: prohibiting the feeding deer within a DMA; prohibiting hunters from transporting the head, backbone and other so-called high-risk parts of deer harvested within a DMA to outside of that DMA; the use of urine-based deer attractants within a DMA; and issuing special DMAP permits to harvest more antlerless deer in specific areas of each DMA to further reduce the deer herd.

Sadly, the answer is there probably is no answer, and it’s just a matter of time before CWD spreads statewide. I take no pleasure in that dismal prediction, but the facts of CWD are even more dismal. CWD was first detected in Colorado in 1967. For decades, the disease was mostly confined to several western states before making the jump east of the Mississippi River in the early 2000s and ultimately to Pennsylvania in 2012. CWD currently is found in more than 20 states and Canadian provinces. In more than 50 years of battling CWD throughout North America, there is still no way to test live animals for the disease and no vaccine to prevent it, and obviously, no state has been able to control or confine the spread of CWD. And I have little faith that any of the oracles of Elmerton Avenue will crack the enigma of CWD any time soon. I say that because of the PGC’s rather bleak record of “managing” the wildlife of our state.

When I was a young boy, I can remember hearing bobwhite quail whistling in the field across the road from our house. Quail were all but a memory by the time I started hunting a few years later. I did get to hunt some wild pheasants in the southeast back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the twilight years of that grand resource. The PGC stood by and watched the demise of wild pheasants in Pennsylvania, telling us well after the fact that end was because of “loss of habitat.” We lost “some” of our pheasant habitat; we lost “all” of our wild pheasants. Recently, the PGC has admitted that ruffed grouse, our state bird, is also in trouble, something that those of us who actually hunt these grand gamebirds have known for a while. West Nile virus, they say, is the cause. Another great excuse. How about some solutions?

In recent years, the PGC has also been fond of beating its chest to the fact that it manages “all” the wildlife in Pennsylvania. Great. So that means they also stood by and watched as we lost virtually all our bats because of white-nose syndrome. Out of ignorance, most folks find bats creepy and repulsive, but they are harmless and greatly beneficial mammals, and their demise is an ecological disaster of epic proportions.

Of course, the PGC is just one of the players who has dropped the ball instead of preserving, protecting and enhancing the natural resources of Pennsylvania as is their mission. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission watched the greatest river smallmouth bass fishery in the world, the Susquehanna River, crash back in 2005, and they have been wondering why ever since. Pennsylvania, of course, means “Penn’s Woods,” but our forest managers have also watched catastrophe befall our forests for generations.

The American chestnut was wiped out by blight, and the elm trees were victims of Dutch elm disease. More recently our state tree, the Eastern hemlock, has fallen prey to the hemlock wooly adelgid, while all our ash trees have succumbed to the emerald ash borer.

And those are just some of the cases I can think of off the top of my head. That’s why I have to put all of our natural resource agencies into the “watch” and “wonder” categories. Sad but true.

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