Pennsylvania Not Asking the Right Questions on CWD

With news of another farm-raised deer testing positive with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), we can all expect the predictable response by media and anti-agriculture activists to point fingers at deer farms. Unfortunately, as most of the attention is focused on farm-raised deer, the larger, more ominous threat is being ignored. Wild deer are not hapless victims in the spread of CWD. The truth is that a deer population that is unmanaged and unmonitored is the most likely carrier of the disease, and no one seems to be asking the right questions.

What is the Pennsylvania Game Commission doing to stop the spread of CWD in the wild? Why is the state’s testing program nearly non-existent? How are Pennsylvania officials going to protect the farm-raised animals in a state which has the second-largest deer industry in the nation?

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been detected in four locations in Pennsylvania: a deer farm in Adams County; wild deer in Blair and Bedford counties; and on two deer farms in Jefferson County. Since state wildlife officials first began testing for CWD in 1998, 15 deer — both wild and farm-raised — have tested positive.

The epidemiological investigation on most, if not all, of these infected deer has not revealed any evidence that the disease was brought in through the deer farms. None. In fact, current evidence points to environmental contamination as the most plausible cause, not deer farms.

Based on USDA reports and related research, we know that an infected deer can carry CWD for many years without showing any symptoms, thus expanding the range of possible infection in the wild. We know that CWD can be transmitted by crows and small varmints. We know CWD can be unknowingly spread by hunters transporting infected deer carcasses. There is even research that indicates the CWD-causing prions are transmitted through plants, such as alfalfa, which is routinely transported across the country. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop a CWD-infected deer in an neighboring state from walking across the Pennsylvania state line.

Yet, with the discovery of another CWD-positive whitetail, we can expect the finger-pointing, hyped headlines and fear-mongering on deer farms. Instead, we should be looking at facts and asking the right questions.

Pennsylvania has an estimated 1.5 million deer — about 30 deer per square mile — and an estimated 343,110 deer were killed by hunters during the 2012-2013 deer season, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. That's an increase of about 2 percent from the previous season.

In 2012 and 2013, the PGC tested 8,065 wild deer for CWD with five deer testing positive for the disease. This would suggest an infection rate of 0.0006 percent. This is such an incredibly small sampling of the population that that any findings would have been considered scientifically insignificant. However, if you applied that rate to the state’s entire herd, Pennsylvania could potentially have 900 CWD-positive deer roaming free to spread the disease. The thought of 900 ‘Typhoid Marys’ should be a concern for every sportsmen and a high priority for Pennsylvania wildlife officials.

In stark contrast to the wildlife program, Pennsylvania’s independent deer farms follow vigorous CWD certification programs with state and federal guidelines and oversight. Deer farmers collect and test samples on EVERY deer that dies on the farm, regardless of how the deer might have died. 100 percent!

In addition, every farm-raised deer that is moved from one location to another is documented and monitored.

Do wildlife officials test all wild deer deaths? No.

Do wildlife officials monitor deer movements across state and county lines? No.

Do we believe the only three wild CWD-positive deer in 2012 were killed by hunters? No.

Do we believe that there were only two wild CWD-positive deer in 2013 and they both happened to get run over? No.

How many more CWD-positive deer are in the wild? While the deer industry knows exactly how many deer have CWD because deer farms test EVERY deer, the PGC can only make guesses.

So, what has the PGC done to keep CWD from walking across the border? Is the PGC enforcing restrictions to stop hunters from bringing whole carcasses into Pennsylvania? What are Pennsylvania wildlife officials doing to stop wild deer from being moved from Blair and Bedford counties? What is the state doing to protect the farm-raised deer from the wild deer?

Deer farmers have never shied away from regulation. The industry welcomes fair and reasonable oversight, and has always worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies. In fact, the deer industry sought out and lobbied for more than 13 years to establish the Federal CWD Certification program.

The public needs to be aware that Pennsylvania’s wild deer population is not just the potential greatest victim of CWD; it is also the largest potential carrier. The right solutions will only come by first asking the right questions.

Shawn Schafer, Executive Director
North American Deer Farmers Association