Pa. Game Commission ramps up battle against CWD.
It’s hard to believe that hunting season is just two weeks away, heralded by the opening of our early goose and dove seasons here on Sept. 1. It may be even harder to believe that archery deer season here in Wildlife Management Units (WMU) 5C and 5D opens just a month from now on Sept. 16 (although the statewide archery season doesn’t open until Sept. 30). The extended deer seasons in our corner of the Commonwealth are indicative of an overpopulation of whitetails here and a pressing need to cull the herd. But elsewhere in the state, when it comes to deer, other issues are more pressing.
First and foremost among these is the growing threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a problem the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) now faces with a renewed sense of urgency. While CWD hasn’t yet surfaced anywhere in our neck of Penn’s Woods, it has reared its destructive head in other counties. In response, the PGC has created a new executive-level position to direct its ongoing and intensifying efforts to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease in wild whitetailed deer and neutralize its threat to wild elk.
So on August 1, Wayne A. Laroche, who has served as the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Management director for the past two years, was appointed to Special Assistant for CWD Response, a new position. In his new capacity Laroche will lead the Game Commission’s efforts to slow CWD’s spread and minimize its impacts on whitetails and elk.
Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy similar to Mad Cow Disease in cattle; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans; and Scrapie in sheep and goats. It was first recognized in deer and elk in Colorado in 1967. The cause of CWD is believed to be an abnormal prion (protein infectious particle). Prions are concentrated in the brain, nervous system, and lym-
phoid tissues of infected animals. It causes death of brain cells resulting in microscopic holes in the brain tissue.
While animals infected with CWD do not show signs of infection for 12 or more months, late stage symptoms of CWD-infected animals include an extreme loss of body condition; excessive drinking, urination, salivation and drooling; and behavioral and neurologic changes such as repetitive walking patterns, droopy ears, a wide-based stance and listlessness. Some animals lose their fear of humans and predators. There is no known cure. It is important to note that these symptoms may also be characteristic of diseases other than CWD.
CWD is transmitted both directly through animal-to-animal contact and indirectly through food and soil contaminated with bodily secretions including feces, urine and saliva. Contaminated carcasses or high-risk carcass parts may also spread the disease indirectly through environmental contamination. Prions are very stable in the environment and remain infectious for decades.
With Laroche moving into his new position, efforts will begin immediately to hire a new director for the Bureau of Wildlife Management, which is responsible for managing the state’s 480 species of wild birds and mammals, including 60 game animals and furbearers.
Laroche, over the past two years, has taken the lead on managing Pennsylvania’s sporadic and smoldering CWD problem in wild deer populations, deploying a variety of measures designed to assess CWD’s prevalence and limit its spread in areas where it has been found.
Laroche directed the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife from 2003 to 2011 and has served on many state, regional and international committees that manage wildlife collaboratively. He earned his bachelor’s in wildlife management from the University of Maine, School of Forestry, and received his master’s in natural resources, from the Humboldt State University School of Natural Resources in Arcata, Calif.
“Because I’ve spent so much of my time on Pennsylvania’s CWD problem, and now that it’s flared up in wild deer within the state’s interior, it makes perfect sense for the Game Commission to devote even more resources to fighting this disease,” Laroche said. “Whitetails and elk are incredibly important to Pennsylvania. Imagine where conservation and tourism would be without them.”
On July 13, the Game Commission announced a free-ranging whitetail buck in Bell Township, Clearfield County, had tested positive for CWD. It was found in Disease Management Area (DMA) 3, which includes parts of Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties. It marked the first time the disease was documented in freeranging deer in an area of the state where it previously had been detected in only captive deer.
CWD also exists among wild deer in the area of southcentral Pennsylvania defined as Disease Management Area 2. Twentyfive free-ranging deer tested positive for CWD during 2016. And an additional four CWD-positive deer have been detected since, raising to 51 the total of CWD-positives detected within the DMA 2 since 2012.
Although the PGC has worked aggressively to limit CWD’s spread by establishing DMAs in central Pennsylvania, the disease continues to advance within these DMAs. “Our response to Pennsylvania’s growing CWD threat must stop this disease,” declared Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “There’s too much at stake to consider any other alternative.” Widespread loss of whitetails could cripple conservation and greatly reduce the millions of dollars hunters spend in Pennsylvania annually.
“Wayne Laroche is a conservation veteran who already has worked diligently on Pennsylvania’s evolving CWD plan, and his new position centers his focus on CWD,” Burhans explained. “I expect him to hit the ground running in his new role.”
An informational seminar for members of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association focused on Chronic Wasting Disease will be hosted by the Game Commission at the PGC headquarters in Harrisburg next week. I plan to be in attendance and provide a full report via this column following the event.
Chronic wasting disease has caused problems for deer around Pennsylvania.