The Pennsylvania Game Commission is preparing to vote on a Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan that will guide the state’s attempts to combat this always fatal disease that affects deer and elk.
The plan lays out a host of rules and tactics that will be deployed when CWD is detected. Some are radical, like allowing deer hunting any time of year within three miles of the site of a confirmed case, dropping antler restrictions in CWD areas and more.
A new proposal added to the plan in April calls for statewide bans on feeding deer, putting out mineral licks and using both real and synthetic deer scents and lures.
While agency biologists support these bans because of the risks they say are associated with these activities, there are no studies that have proven such bans reduce the prevalence of CWD.
That is, there are no studies that have been done to determine if CWD is transmitted at the same or different rates with or without such bans.
But biologists say there’s a reason no such study exists, and the lack of one doesn’t mean there is no science to support the bans.
“It would require a state to conduct a large-scale, long-term experiment that could potentially increase an always fatal disease that is likely impossible to remove from the environment across a large landscape,” said the Game Commission’s CWD Science Team.
“So, (such a study) would be irresponsible to conduct in real-life.”
The team added that feeding deer and using lures, “may lead to an unnatural congregation of animals. Disease transmission dynamics are well understood in the scientific community. An unnatural congregation of animals indisputably brings them into closer contact with one another.
“Such animals will have a greater risk of transmitting disease to one another. This is the foundation for why social distancing measures for humans have been recommended during this coronavirus pandemic.”
Indeed, a study done by University of Wisconsin from 2012-15 found CWD-causing prions in the environment at and around mineral lick sites – both manmade and naturally occurring – in an area of Wisconsin where CWD was known to exist.
“Our results demonstrate that CWD-infected white-tailed deer deposit prions at mineral licks they visit,” the study concludes.
“Frequent visitation by infected cervids could allow mineral licks to become potential hot spots for indirect transmission of CWD.”
Still, some Pennsylvania hunters are skeptical and oppose the bans being proposed here.
There’s a Change.org petition circulating titled “Stop the Pennsylvania Game Commission from making supplements and minerals illegal to use.” It has garnered over 7,400 signatures over the past month.
Many of those who signed the petition point to the fact that deer are social animals, and that they are likely to come in close contact with one another even with the bans in place.
“The minimal amount of supplemental feeding and use of scents etc. is no more harmful than 50-60 deer in a cornfield every night,” Scott Fidler wrote.
“Or every deer on the mountain visiting a natural scrape.”
Keith Adamson wrote, “Deer constantly interact with each other on their own.”
According to a 2019 survey of Pennsylvania residents by the Game Commission – which included hunters and nonhunters alike - about 9 percent of respondents said they intentionally fed deer or put out minerals.
When it comes to the use of lures, a 2017 survey of hunters by the Game Commission found that 41 percent of bowhunters and 16 percent of firearms hunters reported using them.
If enacted, the proposed bans would negatively affect certain groups of people – including businesses that make and sell the products targeted by the bans. And yet, there are no studies which verify that such bans will reduce the prevalence of CWD in Pennsylvania.
So are they worth it?
“The question to ask is whether benefits of feeding and attractants outweigh the risk of introducing CWD to new areas or amplifying CWD in existing areas,” the CWD Science Team responded.
“Given the limited number of people who feed, the lack of need for wildlife to be fed, and the limited effect on hunter success, the agency has recommended changes to these practices for the long-term benefit of wildlife.
“We are making these recommendations purely to benefit wildlife health. Transmission risk when it comes to diseases, such as CWD, is never dependent on one risk factor but rather a collection of risk factors. The most comprehensive disease mitigation recommendations address all known risk factors that are capable of being controlled, no matter how small.”
Putting out food for deer as bait during hunting season has never been allowed in Pennsylvania, except in the Southeast Special Regulations Area.
Baiting there has been allowed the past several years as a way to help urban/suburban hunters draw deer out of areas they can’t access in order to harvest them.
The Game Commission’s CWD Response Plan proposal does not mention baiting in the southeast, and the agency’s CWD Science Team said that’s because it has no plans to ban that practice.
“Baiting in the SE Special Regulations Area was not a consideration in the CWD response plan because regulated baiting is different from feeding, due to the intent of baiting is to remove the deer coming to the bait,” the team said.
Like other parts of the CWD Response Plan, the feeding/lures bans are recommendations from Game Commission staff. Ultimately, it’s up to the agency’s board of commissioners to decide what parts of the plan are implemented.
The Game Commission is committed to approving something prior to the start of the 2020-21 hunting season.
The next meeting of the board is in July, but Bob Frye, the agency’s CWD communications specialist, said the commissioners are expected to call a special vote on the plan before that meeting.
He said regardless of when that vote occurs, it’s already too late to get any new rules associated with the plan into the print version of the 2020-21 hunting and trapping digest that’s sold when hunters buy their licenses.
In the past, rule omissions from the digest have created confusion for hunters. But with the increased use of the internet, reliance on the digest likely is lower now than previously.
Frye said the Game Commission plans to reach out to hunters and the public in other ways to make them aware of the approved plan’s rules.