Ward: Study CWD instead of culling herd

Senator wants more accurate count of deer

Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, is urging the Pennsylvania Game Commission to spend more on chronic wasting disease studies as opposed to hastily decreasing the deer population in Blair County.

In a letter addressed to Bryan Burhans, Game Commission executive director, Ward asked for an aerial thermal imaging study to determine a more accurate count of the number of deer in the southern Blair County near Bedford County where the commission proposes to decrease the population.

So far, the Game Commission’s plan to reduce the population is based solely on ground-level thermal imaging.

Ward also asked the commission to consider additional dollars for the purpose of another study to more closely examine the problem of CWD causes, spread and treatment.

“As you know, my legislative district has been at the forefront of the chronic wasting disease issue. Southern Blair County, at the Bedford County line seems to be ground zero for this disease,” she wrote.

Ward met with the Game Commission on Wednesday, said Commission Com­muni­cations Director Travis Lau.

“We received Senator Ward’s letter, are considering the requests and are meeting with Senator Ward today to further discuss it,” he stated in an email.

The commission stopped a major part of its original CWD study in February because of public outcry and denial of access to private land. The study was to determine whether lower deer numbers can control chronic wasting disease. It called for use of USDA sharpshooters to kill deer in southern Blair County.

The cost of the sharpshooting, including personnel costs, vehicle fuel, supplies and lodging comes to $300,000, according to the commission’s cooperative agreement with the USDA.

The sharpshooters were pulled back for a year as the commission plans public meetings to address hunters’ concerns. But the other aspects of the study that do not require killing are continuing.

The work plan through June 30, 2021, includes three jobs with numerous details: Job No. 1 is “wildlife health and disease surveillance and management,” job No. 2 is “Safe Capture, Handling, and Immobilization of Wildlife” and job No. 3. is “surveillance, monitoring, control and research.”

The entire CWD study, which started last July, cost $7.4 million. The federal share is $5.6 million, and the state share is $1.8 million.

Ward’s suggestion for an additional aerial study is something a group of hunters calling themselves Sportsmen for the Future have proposed since the Commission outlined its CWD plan.

The Game Commission has said there are 40 deer per square mile in the area where targeted removal was planned, according to the Sportsmen for the Future group.

“We believe that the Pennsylvania Game Com­mission has dramatically overestimated the white-tailed deer population numbers in our area,” a circular from the group states. “Our evidence is not based on personal experience alone, but also on the comparison of the Game Commission’s population estimates to other estimates in surrounding areas. … Using their numbers, the Game Commission desires a large reduction in the number of deer (about 2,000) to help slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.”

Ward’s letter suggests the commission spend money in its reserve to gather more information on the deer population while the sharpshooters have been put on hold.

A state audit of the commission from 2014-17 shows the game commission had a growing pile of cash — $73 million in 2018 — and failed to take those reserves into account when developing an annual budget.

Secondly, auditors found $6.5 million more in various escrow accounts, which the commission’s financial officer didn’t have knowledge of until the audit, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.

In her letter, Ward requested the commission use some of that money to fund the actions she proposes.

“Given the amount of funding that Pennsylvania Game Commission has in reserve and the serious nature of this disease in the commonwealth, I am urging the commission to take whatever steps necessary to authorize the release of some of these monies as you undertake a comprehensive review of your finances.”

Speaking about public perception of the audit, Lau said some things need to be straightened out regarding the $73 million fund balance.

“That’s one thing people seem to be unclear on following the release of the audit. The commission cannot just dip into that reserve and spend it. It is a reserve and surplus, yes, and while the commission is an independent state agency, spending is controlled by the governor’s budget office,” he said.

DePasquale’s audit acknow­ledged the negotiating the commission must do with the governor’s office to spend the money, but according to the audit, the commission excluded the fund balance from its annual budget proposals.

Lau acknowledged that the surplus was higher than the commission prefers.

“The (audited) surplus was higher than what would be ideal,” Lau said. “Ideally, the surplus would be $40 million. What we suspect is the surplus’ uptick is due to an uptick in the Marcellus Shale market.”

If the governor’s budget office allows the commission to spend a portion of the audited surplus money, Lau said he believes the commission’s ideal projects would involve infrastructure repairs, including visitor centers.

As for the $6.5 million more in various escrow accounts, Lau said the commission was aware of those accounts despite what the audit suggested. He said the auditor general’s report makes it sound like those accounts were not known to the entire commission, but that is not true. The commission’s financial officer didn’t have knowledge of until the audit. That employee was new to the position, he said.

The money in those accounts, Lau said, is for land acquisition when energy wells or pads for construction are approved.

“We try to make up for land loss by purchasing land elsewhere to replace land affected by energy operations,” he said.

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