HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Game Commission hopes hunters can help control the spread of chronic wasting disease, but a plan now out for public comment raises the specter that snipers may be brought in to kill deer if needed.
It’s a strategy that’s helped wildlife officials control the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer herds in other states, including New York, Illinois and Minnesota, said Courtney Colley, a Game Commission spokeswoman.
Symptoms in animals of chronic wasting disease can include drastic weight loss of wasting, stumbling and other neurological issues. It was first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012. Since then, 250 wild deer have tested positive for the disease.
The spread of the disease “is an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes,” Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said. “We can’t eradicate it, but we can manage it.”
The Game Commission released its draft plan for dealing with chronic wasting disease on Thursday. The public will have until Feb. 29 to comment on the plan, Colley said. That input will be included in the final plan, to be used for the 2020-21 hunting seasons, according to the agency.
The Game Commission is considering a number of ways to get hunters to harvest enough deer, officials said Thursday.
• Granting hunters the opportunity to hunt more antlerless deer near areas where diseased animals have been found
• Expanding the deer season
• Removing restrictions on deer antler size
• Increasing the number of permits for antlerless deer hunting
If those efforts aren’t sufficient, the state will propose bringing in snipers for “targeted removal” of deer, Colley said.
In Illinois, the wildlife officials have used these targeted removal efforts since 2002 to keep the spread of chronic wasting disease under control, Colley said.
In contrast, after three deer were discovered with the disease in Pennsylvania in 2012, the number of cases here has ballooned. Last year, there were 123 wild deer found with the disease in Pennsylvania, she said.
Deer can spread the disease through animal-to-animal contact or deer can be infected by walking and feeding on ground that a sick animal has been on, she said.
Once a diseased animal has infected, the soil will remain infected regardless of how hot or cold outside temperatures get, Colley said.
Once a deer is infected, it’s always fatal, though symptoms may take two years to develop, she said. There is no vaccine or treatment available.
In the hardest hit part of the state – Blair, Bedford and Fulton counties – about 5 percent of deer are infected with the disease, according to Game Commission data. Without getting the situation under control, the infection rate could hit 30 percent in the next two decades, according to the Game Commission.
Representatives of outdoors groups joined the Game Commission on Thursday to announce their support for the strategy.
“Chronic Wasting Disease is a very real threat to deer and our deer hunting traditions," said Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Alliance, a hunters’ group. “It’s an issue that nobody wants to deal with, but the ‘do nothing’ alternative would only serve to satisfy the desires of a few at the expense of the masses that care about the deer and their impact on all wildlife conservation and the economy.”