Cooperation the key in fighting CWD

HARRISBURG - Disease respects no boundaries, as the ongoing global pandemic so very clearly shows.

That's true with illness among wildlife as well as humans.

So the Pennsylvania Game Commission is commending new Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture regulations dealing with Chronic Wasting Disease in captive deer.

The Game Commission is responsible for managing wild, free-ranging deer in the Commonwealth. The Department of Agriculture has responsibility for captive deer, elk and other cervids.

That makes managing CWD a shared responsibility.

The Department of Agriculture's new rules put into place in late August create a CWD Core Captive Management Zone in Bedford, Blair and Fulton counties. They intend to control CWD in that portion of the state where it is most prevalent, while also allowing deer farms to stay in business.

But boiled down, they are meant to halt the rapid increase in the number of CWD cases seen in the last two years, most especially in that portion of the state where disease prevalence rates are highest. That's something all people interested in deer and deer hunting care about.

"We know that all deer, whether they be wild and free-ranging or captive, are susceptible to CWD. They all can get it, and all those that do die," said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Game Commission. "So in the end, it makes no difference which way CWD travels, be that into the wild from behind a fence or vice versa. We just need to stop its spread where we can as best we can."

The Department of Agriculture's new regulations can help.

"This is a big step forward not just for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, but for CWD management as a whole and will help to further reduce the risk of spreading the disease across the Commonwealth," said Andrea Korman, the Game Commission's CWD biologist.

One key measure of Captive Management Zone regulations is a prohibition on the movement of high-risk parts outside its boundaries. Those include the brain, eyes, tonsils, lymph nodes, backbone, spleen and anything containing visible brain or spinal cord material where the prions that spread CWD are concentrated.

The intent is to limit the spread of CWD from places where its more common to places where it's still rarer.

That's noteworthy and laudable, said Kip Adams, director of conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association.

"While we prefer no movement of live white-tailed deer, we applaud the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for prohibiting farms in the new CWD Core Captive Management Zone from moving high-risk parts out of the zone," Adams said.

That prohibition also lines up with something the Game Commission is suggesting.

The agency's Board of Commissioners adopted a new CWD Response Plan in July. It outlines how the Game Commission will tackle CWD moving forward.

One proposal in there is to create a CWD "Established Area" in all of Wildlife Management Unit 4A and a portion of WMU 2C. Notably, the area centers around Bedford, Blair and Fulton counties.

The Established Area is a geographic area where CWD detections occur contiguously and consistently from year to year. CWD is considered to be established within the deer population and, coupled with environmental contamination, poses a long-term threat to neighboring areas.

To mitigate disease transmission risks, remove diseased cervids from the landscape and prevent further contamination of the environment within the Established Area, the Response Plan recommends lowering deer densities.

Hunters already are getting the first chance to do that. Antlerless allocations were increased in those Wildlife Management Units within Disease Management Areas, and a 14-day concurrent antlered and antlerless firearms season was put in place.

Hunters are being encouraged to drop the heads from deer harvested there into special collection bins. They'll be tested for CWD so as to paint a picture of where CWD exists on the landscape and to what degree.

Getting that information is critically important to managing this disease.

"Quickly acquiring and testing samples is one of our most powerful tools in combating CWD. Our wildlife scientists are focused on increasing the speed and accuracy of CWD testing," said Dr. Lisa Murphy, Co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program and Resident Director of the PADLS laboratory at Penn Vet's New Bolton Center. "We are thoroughly committed to providing hunters and the Game Commission with rapid, reliable results in order to continue fostering critical understandings of this disease and, subsequently, implementing sound, science-backed management strategies."

In the meantime, the Game Commission and Department of Agriculture will continue to work together to battle CWD. That cooperation is vital.

"It speaks to the importance of collaboration between agencies in order to mitigate the risks captive cervids and Pennsylvania's free-ranging deer and elk populations may pose to each other," Korman said.

Board gives preliminary approval to use of night-vision and infrared optics

The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners gave preliminary approval to a regulatory change that would allow handheld and sporting-arm mounted night-vision and infrared optics to be used while hunting furbearers.

The change will not become effective unless the board casts a second vote at another meeting to adopt it. The board's next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 25 and 26.

The preliminarily approved change would permit night-vision and infrared optics only when hunting furbearers. There are hunting seasons for the following furbearers: raccoons, foxes, coyotes, opossums, striped skunks, weasels, bobcats and porcupines.

Today's vote follows the recent passage and signing into law of state House Bill 1188, which permits the Game Commission to regulate night-vision and infrared optics. Previously, the hunting use of these devices was prohibited by state law.

The board took swift action to begin the process of regulating these devices in response to comments the agency has received since the bill's passage.

"In the days since HB 1188 became law, the Board of Commissioners has been flooded with comments asking us to move forward with adopting regulations permitting the use of night vision equipment," said Board President Charlie Fox. "We are confident that the use of this equipment will provide predator hunters an additional tool in their toolbox, one that will allow them to be efficient and safe when hunting predators."

The regulations voted on by the Board were drafted by the Bureau of Wildlife Protection which reviewed data from other states that permit the use of night vision equipment and determined there was no safety concerns regarding their use for hunting furbearers in Pennsylvania.

Board votes down use of electric bicycles on state game lands

A proposal to allow state game lands users to ride Class 1 and Class 2 electric bicycles in the same manner they can ride traditional bicycles was voted down by the board.

The commissioners gave preliminary approval to the measure in January, but tabled it in April. Today, the measure was rejected by a 5-3 vote, with Commissioners Stanley Knick, Brian Hoover and Timothy Layton voting in favor of permitting e-bikes on game lands.

While it remains unlawful to operate e-bikes on game lands, the 2020-21 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is issued to hunters and furtakers at the time they buy their licenses, erroneously states on Page 16 that Class 1 and Class 2 e-bikes are permitted on game lands. This is incorrect. All e-bikes continue to be prohibited everywhere on game lands, including on roads normally open to public travel. E-bikes cannot be used on game lands while hunting or trapping. The prohibition on their use will continue to be enforced.

Prior to a vote on the measure, Commissioner Michael Mitrick questioned the need for e-bikes. Mitrick said that game lands primarily serve to provide wildlife habitat and places to hunt, trap and otherwise interact with wildlife, and permitting even limited recreational riding could compromise that purpose.

Commissioners Charles Fox, Scott Foradora, Dennis Fredericks and Kristen Schnepp-Giger joined with Mitrick in voting to keep e-bike use on game lands unlawful.

A Class 1 e-bike is defined as a two-wheeled bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of 750 watts (1 horsepower) or less that provides assistance only when the rider is actively pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph.

A Class 2 e-bike is defined as a bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and a throttle-actuated 750-watt motor that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 20 mph. The bike can operate without pedaling.

Fluorescent orange required on state game lands on Sundays

During the height of the fall hunting seasons from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15 nonhunters using state game lands long have been required to wear fluorescent orange, except on Sundays.

But now that expanded Sunday hunting has been approved, additional hunting will occur on three Sundays within that timeframe.

And the Board of Game Commissioners today adopted amended regulations that require hikers and other nonhunters to wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent-orange clothing on the head, chest and back combined, visible from 360 degrees, when visiting state game lands at any time during that period.

Those using shooting ranges are exempted from the requirement.