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Hunters: Culling not answer to CWD

Game commission says plan to thin herd remains best choice

EAST FREEDOM — Last year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission announced plans to hire sharpshooters to perform a controlled deer kill in Blair and Bedford counties, hoping to contain the spread of chronic wasting disease.

CWD is an infectious disease that attacks the brain of deer, elk and moose, and is believed to be caused by a misfolded protein called a prion. CWD is spread through contact with the saliva, urine or feces of an infected deer or its environment and is 100 percent fatal.

The commission’s plan was to reduce the deer herd in CWD targeted areas by up to 2,500, claiming at the time that culling the herd was the best option for managing the spread of the disease.

Negative hunter reaction along with the refusal of private landowners to allow shooters on their land forced the game commission to put its culling plan on hold.

On Saturday morning, representatives from the game commission, hunters and lawmakers gathered at the Freedom Township Fire Hall in East Freedom to discuss CWD and the game commission’s plans going forward.

Hunters take a stand

The game commission and hunters have not agreed on what approach to take to stop the spread of CWD. When the commission proposed a controlled kill last year, hunter reaction in Blair and Bedford counties was swift and decisive — they did not support culling, and that position has not changed.

Rodney Swope, vice president of Sportsmen for the Future, said the killing of deer will only decimate the population but do nothing to stop the spread of the disease.

“We came together to stand against the game commission, knowing the issues of CWD are not going to be solved by an experimental cull of 2,000 to 2,500 deer within a 100 square mile area,” he said. “Many healthy animals would have been killed, decimating the herd.”

Swope said his group favors a scientific approach to CWD, saying the game commission’s plan cannot be proven to work, and could in fact do more harm.

“We do not support the game commission’s unsubstantiated strategies in attempting to manage a complex and critical situation,” he said. “Non-selective culling of large numbers of deer for experimental purposes without definitive proof of the method’s success poses a greater risk for future deer populations.”

Sportsmen for the Future President Matt Johnson said the problem with the game commission’s culling plan last year is that they can’t do it on state game lands where deer population is sparse, but instead have to rely on private landowners for support, something he said they didn’t get last year, and probably won’t get in the future.

“They can’t take their numbers off the state game lands and they know this,” Johnson said. “Landowners control their own herd and they don’t go out and kill every deer they see. They want to be able to see deer the next year and the year after. The game commission is probably not ever going to get access to the private ground to kill what they want to kill.”

The plan

Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans told the hunters that although there are disagreements on how to manage CWD, everyone is on the same side in their love of hunting and wanting to see it continue to thrive.

“We are you and you are us,” he said. ‘We take this disease very seriously.”

Burhans said the infection rate of CWD in Pennsylvania is less than 5 percent and is manageable with the right approach.

“How do we get our hands around this disease?” Burhans asked.

Burhans said at the present time the best approach to stopping the spread of CWD is in managing the herd, which would come in the form of a controlled culling.

“With higher deer populations, you get longer dispersal, and with lower deer populations, you get shorter dispersal,” he said. “Dispersal is important because we want to slow the spread of this disease right now with the technology we currently have in hand.”

Burhans acknowledged the public outcry over last year’s planned culling but said it was the best approach to managing the disease.

“We are now into disease management, and with disease management comes a different approach to deer management,” he said. “The only tool we have right now is the harvest of deer as a tool to manage this disease.”

Burhans said the commission needs the hunters’ support for the plan to work. Last summer, the game commission drew up a CWD response plan and have been soliciting hunter comments with the results to be released in April.

Burhans said that with landowner support, the game commission wants to do a controlled deer kill next year.

“It would probably start next winter, after the hunting season,” he said. “That’s with landowner permission. We don’t go anywhere unless the landowner agrees to it.”

Government help

State officials have taken notice of CWD and have committed to funding research into stopping its spread.

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said Blair County is “ground zero” for CWD. Ward said she met with Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and was able to secure $1 million in grants for three research projects to help detect and better understand CWD.

“He agreed that we needed research and, true to his word, we did get one million in research dollars that he released,” Ward said.

The grants will be used to help fund research into using dogs to detect CWD in deer feces and two separate projects to develop a system of testing for CWD in live deer. Currently, CWD can only be tested in dead animals.

U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, co-sponsored the Chronic Wasting Disease Transmission Study Act, which is a taxpayer funded study of CWD aimed to develop a way to combat it.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, was instrumental in getting the game commission to put its plans to cull the herd on hold last year in favor of more research and has acted as a buffer between the game commission and sportsmen.

Common goal

Burhans said that contrary to appearances, the game commission and sportsmen are not fighting each other, they are fighting the disease, and that has led to frustration on both ends.

“We are mad at the disease,” Burham said. “Our agency has never been mad at them. I know it feels like anger toward them, but I never read it that way. We are all frustrated; there is no easy answer.”

Johnson agreed that the anger is geared more toward the disease than each other and that the different approaches both sides want to take gives the appearance of a brewing war between the game commission and hunters.

“We are not fighting with them person to person, we are fighting about a disease,” Johnson said. “We don’t fight with them about anything else, we know they are just doing their jobs. We don’t agree with what they want to do, and they don’t agree with what we want to do.”

Burhans said the game commission and sportsmen share a common goal of controlling, and someday eradicating CWD and that he hopes to be able to work with them for the best solution.

“We have to recognize that we have to work together and work on common ground to be able to move this forward,” he said. “We need all of us working together if we are going to make a difference.”

Mirror Staff Writer Rick Boston is at 946-7535.

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