Tracking chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania's captive deer a tricky task

Chronic wasting disease is becoming an issue in Pennsylvania.

In late August, I attended an all-day chronic wasting disease press meeting in Harrisburg for members of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. We spent the day at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s headquarters and at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

No one knows how CWD got into Pennsylvania, but since CWD — an always-fatal disease of deer and elk — was first detected in an Adams County, I think a closer look at the deer-farming industry, and hunters, is important.

Pennsylvania is a big deer-farming state. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, there are nearly 1,000 deer farms in the commonwealth, raising approximately 23,000 captive deer. Significant problems exist with monitoring, reporting and with the number of escaped deer.

Some small “farms” pen only a few deer that are more like pets. High-fence hunting facilities also count as farms, while they might only house deer for short periods of time, rather than breeding them. Big operations, however, such as Josh Levy’s Hidden Hollow Deer Farm in Bedford County or the Glenn Dice Farm in Franklin County, raise hundreds of deer.

How are these facilities regulated?

The deer industry, like cattle or swine farming, is regulated by the state Department of Agriculture, not the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The Ag department has only 24 animal health field staff and they are charged with monitoring all farmed species — nowhere near enough to cover the state.

All farms for captive deer or elk must enroll in one of two Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture herd programs. The voluntary Herd Certification Program has 260 enrolled farms, while 720 are part of the mandatory Herd Monitored Program.

Both types of farms must report their inventory directly to the department annually. HMP farms only have to estimate their inventory and they are required to officially tag deer only when an animal is added to or leaves the farm. These farms are required to test 50 percent of the deer that die or are shot on their facility for CWD. The farm manager selects which deer are tested.

Facilities that volunteer for the HCP have more stringent requirements. They must have an annual visual inventory verification or a hands-on whole-herd inventory verification by an accredited veterinarian every three years. Certified farms must test 100 percent of all adult deer that die on the farm for CWD.

“After five years of negative tests, a herd is certified for the interstate movement of deer,” said Assistant Department of Agriculture Director Dr. Kevin Brightbill said.

Officials from both the Department of Agriculture and the Game Commission agree the current CWD testing requirements are not sufficient to detect the disease with any degree of certainty on even the “certified” farms. In most cases, few deer actually die on the farm’s property. At the very least, Brightbill would like to see Pennsylvania adopt a program similar to what is used in New York, with 10 percent of the deer in all certified herds tested for CWD each year.

The now-depopulated Hidden Hollow Deer Farm was a certified HCP farm. However, one deer that died earlier this year tested positive for CWD. An additional 27 deer (or over 17 percent) of the 215 tested positive after the herd was euthanized in July.

While some might say the system works in the case of the Hidden Hollow Deer Farm, it did not work soon enough. According to Dr. David Wolfgang, who heads the PDA Diagnostic Lab, the Department is now dealing with nearly 1000 tracebacks following all the deer that left or entered the farm during the past several years.

“Ideally, on HMP farms I’d like to see every other deer being tested, not by the facility manager’s choice, but maybe using an even-odd system based on the deer’s tag numbers,” Brightbill said.

Another significant issue is having deer escape from the farms and are never again accounted for.

If a cow or a pig escapes a farm, it is a loss to the farmer, but there are no reporting requirements. If a deer escapes or is stolen, the situation is different, or it is supposed to be. Deer farm managers are required by the agriculture department to report a missing deer within 48 hours. Escaped deer are also reported to the game commission.

However, both entities acknowledge this does not always happen in a timely manner, and might not happen at all.

“We most often learn about an escaped deer when someone spots a deer in the woods with tags, rather than through any official channel,” said Wayne Laroche, the commission’s chronic wasting disease specialist. “Based on Ag department statistics, over 25 percent of the documented escapes aren’t detected or reported until an annual inspection or inventory is completed.”

According to department statistics from 2012-16, over 800 deer were reported as escaped from state deer farms. Of those, only 51 — 6 percent — were returned. Another 6 percent were euthanized and tested for CWD, meaning just 12 percent of the escapees having been accounted for.

Accountability seems to be better this year. Just over 90 deer have been reported escaped, with 44 captured and returned or euthanized and tested.

The department does not search for escaped deer — that is the farmer’s responsibility — and Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said his agency’s policy is to kill any tagged deer spotted in the wild.

A current federal court case (news release 9-14-17) illustrates the total disregard at least a few people have for the law and safety of wild deer. According to court documents, two Louisiana men were just charged with smuggling deer from a CWD-positive Pennsylvania farm into a high-fence hunting facility in Mississippi. So far, there have been no reported cases of CWD in Mississippi, and that state forbids the importation of live deer or entire deer carcasses.

I will cover more on this issue in future columns.

Deer head collection sites

Any hunter harvesting a deer in a Disease Management Area must submit a properly tagged deer head for free CWD testing. The game commission has purchased 30 large, secure bins to be used at collection sites. However, Wayne Laroche said the bins will not be in place for the beginning of the statewide archery deer season on Sept. 30. Blue barrels will be used until the bins arrive in early October.

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