Pa. wages war against CWD on two fronts
By most estimates, Pennsylvania’s fields and forests are home to some 1.5 million whitetail deer. That’s about 30 deer per square mile on average. These wild deer fall under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) whose mission is “to manage Pennsylvania’s wild birds, wild mammals, and their habitats for current and future generations.” But there are also approximately 23,000 captive deer in the state that reside on almost 1,000 deer farms across the commonwealth. Since these deer are not wild, they are not overseen by the PGC. Instead, like livestock, they come under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA).
Now, with chronic wasting disease (CWD) posing a growing threat to both wild and captive deer here in Pennsylvania, these two independent agencies (PGC and PDA) must coordinate their resources in a joint effort to contain the spread of a disease which has already infected both captive and wild whitetails. Last week I attended a CWD Informational Forum hosted by both the PGC and PDA to examine the current status of the disease and learn what measures are being taken to contain it. PGC Executive Director Bryan Burhans was on hand to emphasize how serious his agency regards the threats posed by CWD. “Chronic wasting disease is the most challenging problem faced by our wildlife resources,” he declared. That’s why the PGC has anted up $1,350,000 to deal with it. “The cost will go up drastically if and when the disease spreads,” cautioned Burhans.
Among the PGC presenters at the forum was Wayne Laroche, who had served as the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Management director for the past two years and was recently appointed to Special Assistant for CWD Response, a new position. In his new capacity Laroche takes charge of the Game Commission’s efforts to slow CWD’s spread and minimize its impacts on whitetails and elk. Initial PGC efforts to contain CWD began back in 2012
when the agency established Disease Management Areas (DMA) where Chronic Wasting Disease had been detected. DMA 1 included a captive deer farm in Adams County in 2012. (DMA 1 has since been eliminated); DMA 2 encompassed multiple free-ranging deer in Bedford, Blair, Cambria, and Fulton counties from 20122017, and captive deer farms in Bedford, Franklin, and Fulton counties during 2017; DMA 3 included two captive deer farms in Jefferson County (2014) and free-ranging deer in Clearfield County (2017).
Within any designated DMA, interaction with deer by hunters or other individuals is restricted with the prohibition of rehabilitation of cervids (deer and elk), feeding of wild, freeranging cervids, use or possession of cervid urinebased attractants in any outdoor setting, and, for successful hunters, the removal or exportation of high-risk cervid parts. Pages 36 and 37 of Pennsylvania’s 2017-2018 Hunting and Trapping Digest feature detailed maps outlining the current DMA boundaries.
Laroche indicated that testing of wild deer for CWD in DMAs is extensive. Any reported suspect animals are euthanized and tested as are all road-killed deer in the DMAs. Laroche noted that the erratic behavior exhibited by deer in the later stages of CWD make them more susceptible to vehicle encounters than healthy deer. “Roadkill deer are far more likely to have CWD than a hunter harvest,” he said.
Testing of hunter harvested deer in DMAs will soon become even more extensive as the PGC positions collection boxes throughout the affected areas where hunters are encouraged to drop off the heads of their harvested deer for testing.
While PGC efforts are focused on wild deer, it falls on the PDA to regulate captive deer herds. In order to help contain the spread of CWD, the PDA requires all captive deer farms with CWD-susceptible species to enroll in either the voluntary Herd Certification Program (HCP) or the mandatory Herd Monitored Program (HMP). These programs are designed to help determine the status of CWD within domestic cervid herds.
There are 980 deer farms, including breeding farms and hunting preserves, in Pennsylvania. Of these, 720 are enrolled in HMP and the other 260 are enrolled in HCP. Both HCP and HMP farms are required to annually report inventory to the PDA. HMP farms are required to do an estimated inventory while HCP farms must have either a whole-herd annual visual inventory verification or a whole herd hands-on inventory verification every three years by an Accredited Class II veterinarian.
HCP inventories tend to be more accurate as every deer must have an official animal identification number and one other approved form of identification. Both HMP and HCP herds must report and test all deer that show signs suspicious for CWD. HMP herds must test 50 percent of all animals that die on the farm annually and HCP herds must test 100 percent of all deaths on the farm annually for CWD.
Early last month the PDA announced that 27 deer from a Bedford County deer farm had tested positive for CWD. That herd of 215 captive deer had been quarantined since February 16, 2017, after a whitetail deer on the farm died and subsequently tested positive for the disease. In order to prevent further spread of the disease, the entire herd was “depopulated,” euthanized by officials from the U.S. Department of Agricultural Veterinary Services, USDA Wildlife Services, and the PDA. USDA provided financial compensation to the farm owner for the loss of the herd. Depopulation is also a measure available to the PGC to target wild deer in high risk areas.
Thus far a total of six different deer farms in Adams, Bedford, Franklin, Fulton, and Jefferson counties have held animals that tested positive for CWD. The first cases of CWD in Pennsylvania were detected when two Adams County deer tested positive in 2012. Since then 40 captive deer and 60 wild deer have tested positive in the state where surveillance for the disease has been ongoing since 1998. Although those figures would seem to suggest that CWD is more concentrated among captive deer (40 out of about 23,000 versus 60 out of 1.5 million wild deer) officials from both the PGC and PDA share equal concerns and coordinated efforts to curtail the disease in both wild and captive populations.
Problematic to these concerns is the fact that, since 2012, 892 captive deer have escaped from commonwealth deer farms while only 143 of those escapees were ever recovered, leaving around 750 still roaming among their wild brethren. This comingling of captive and wild deer may help fuel the spread of the disease, a very real fear shared by both the folks at the PDA, who have authority over deer inside the fence, and the PGC, whose jurisdiction activates when those same deer escape outside the fence.
Just as the Game Commission is intensifying their efforts to combat the spread of CWD among wild deer, the Department of Agriculture is doing the same with captive deer. “We are working directly with captive-deer herd managers to educate them on risk factors and to do whatever possible to safeguard their herds,” noted State Veterinarian Dr. David Wolfgang. “Increased Surveillance both in and outside fences is paramount, along with employing management strategies, such as uniformly restricting movement of high-risk parts, managing the density and age of captive herds, and considering secondary barriers to prevent direct contact between captive and wild deer.”
While chronic wasting disease has not yet been detected in any deer here in Chester, Montgomery, or Berks Counties, both the PGC and the PDA remain vigilant in their efforts to contain the disease.