Bryan Burhans

Pennsylvania Game Commission executive director Bryan Burhans answers questions concerning the agency’s on-going efforts to combat the effects of chronic wasting disease on the state’s deer and elk herds.

HARRISBURG — If something sounds too good to be true, unfortunately, far too often that is the case.

For that reason, the National Deer Alliance is the latest in a group of respected and credible conservation organizations supporting the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s chronic wasting disease management strategy, while reinforcing that ample scientific research points to prions as causing the disease. Currently, the other organizations supporting the legitimate research being conducted by the PGC are the Quality Deer Management Association, Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists, Archery Trade Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Pennsylvania Chapter — Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Pope and Young Club, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

CWD has been identified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, and prions are central to TSE genesis. Other prion diseases, such as scrapie in sheep, “mad cow” in cattle and Creutzfeld-Jakob in humans, have similar characteristics.

All TSEs are 100 percent fatal, and deer that become infected may carry and spread the disease for more than two years before dying. Models of CWD epidemic dynamics suggest early, aggressive intervention via selective population reduction through increased harvest show the greatest promise for slowing the spread of the disease.

“As a wild deer-focused conservation organization, we support the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s management of CWD, including the practice of reducing herd sizes to slow the spread in those areas where the disease exists,” NDA CEO and President Nick Pinizzotto said. “We are focused on ensuring the long-term health of deer, hunting and industry, and despite the challenges CWD presents, we’re confident that deer and our hunting heritage will endure.”

Research claiming that bacteria are the causative agents of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies — as is being theorized by some — has never been reproduced despite extremely rigorous attempts to do so. In blind studies done by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, samples of brain material infected with scrapie, along with uninfected samples, were searched for Spiroplasma. and other common bacteria and bacteria-like structures using Polymerase Chain Reaction amplification, which is a method widely used in molecular biology to make many copies of specific DNA segments.

Researchers found no evidence that any eubacterium, including Spiroplasma or any other bacteria type, was consistently associated with scrapie-infected brain tissue, thus concluding that the “agent responsible for TSE disease cannot be a spiroplasma or any other eubacterial species.” Also, an extensive research project completed at Louisiana State University on the potential roles of Spiroplasma in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies found that following inoculation of Spiroplasma mirum into neonatal goats and five-month-old white-tailed deer, none of the animals developed clinical signs or pathology seen in transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

In this study, the bacteria were introduced to the animals intracerebrally, intravenous, or intradermally. Researchers conducting this study tested three species of Spiroplasma and found that they were susceptible to minimal dilutions of common laboratory disinfectants as well as heat sterilization of only 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes.

In a wide array of other studies, samples of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy-infected material treated with similar sterilization methods were shown to remain infectious. This indicated that other factors not related to bacteria result in the transmission and/or persistence of the disease.

“There is international agreement among scientific agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that prions are believed to be the infectious agent that causes TSEs,” wildlife disease ecologist and co-director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Laboratory Dr. Krysten Schuler said. “Viruses and bacteria are not supported as potential causes of TSEs for a number of reasons, which include lack of an immune response, resistance to normal disinfection procedures, environmental persistence for years to decades, and intensive genetic study.”

Unique characteristics of prions make CWD particularly challenging to manage in wild, free-ranging deer and elk herds, but dedicated efforts have been shown to be effective in some states. The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s methods for controlling the disease, including disease management actions reducing population density to interrupt the disease cycle, is scientifically guided, and gleaned from the experiences other states have had.

“Targeted removal of deer is always contentious, but research from Illinois shows it can be effective at keeping the CWD prevalence rate from increasing,” Quality Deer Management Association Director of Conservation Kip Adams said. “The goal of the Game Commission’s project in Bedford and Blair counties includes killing some deer now to save a much larger number in the future.”

Pinizzotto said the NDA empathizes with those who live and hunt in CWD management areas, but the worst thing to do is nothing while hoping for the situation to manage itself or put their faith in claims that a vaccine to cure CWD can be developed in two years. Also, hoping CWD goes away on its own is not a worthy strategy, which has been proven in other areas of the country.

PFSC director of government affairs said the PGC has the organization’s support and is working with the agency, conservation and sportsmen’s organizations in the battle against CWD. One such organization is the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, which promotes responsible and accurate communications regarding CWD and supports strategies that effectively control the disease to minimize its impact on wild, free-ranging deer and elk populations and updates the most accurate and comprehensive news and information about CWD on its website at cwd-info.org.

“The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists, the Commonwealth’s largest and oldest organized sportsmen’s group, recognizes the importance of managing CWD, and supports the Pennsylvania Game Commission in their efforts to combat it,” Kline said. “We look forward to hunters having the opportunity to assist with accomplishing the desired outcomes.”

That should be the desire of all Pennsylvania hunters and non-hunters alike.

(Dietz is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association)

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