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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Is Economic Decline Tied to Fewer Deer?

by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, June 22, 2013.)

It’s no secret that much of Pennsylvania north of Interstate 80 is suffering economic doldrums. And it might not surprise you that some people attribute a depressed economy to the fact that the deer population has declined.

There is no doubt the deer population isn’t what it was 10 years ago, before the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s herd reduction policy began. However, the deer population is now at the level the biologists want, and herd reduction is no longer the policy of the PGC. We’re in a stabilization mode where changes in antlerless allocations are generally year-to-year tweaks to keep the population in the desired range within each Wildlife Management Unit.

Deer can devastate a habitat, 
but by themselves deer do not drive an economy.

The people who connect struggling small businesses to the lower deer population usually cite privately owned establishments that serve deer hunters in November – including restaurants, gas stations, small grocery stores, and sporting goods stores – as dying breeds in a deerless region.

However, such businesses often struggle wherever they are. Yes, the deer population has declined in the northern big woods counties, but is that the only reason – or even the chief reason – these businesses fight to stay open?

I can think of many reasons they no longer get the week-long shot-in-the-arm from November’s deer hunters – and all have a bigger impact than the decline in deer. Here are just a few things anyone should be able to notice:
  1. Higher gas prices – What was once a $30 fill-up is now an $80 fill-up. That’s a reason for people to look for places to hunt closer to home.
  2. More deer more evenly distributed – The north woods used to be the hotspot for hunting, but now a hunter can have a good hunt anywhere in the state.
  3. Demographic changes – Dad used to bring three boys to camp, but he’s now in declining health, and two sons have moved out of state. The one who hasn’t has only one son to take hunting, and he’s not very excited about going.
  4. Competing interests – Team sports and a host of other activities have a grip on the souls of kids like never before. Take your own poll – ask teenagers if they would rather “hang out with friends” or head to the north woods.
  5. Loss of manufacturing jobs – With that comes a declining population. Money always goes where people are, so people go where money is. A thriving economy needs people.
  6. Fewer places to hunt – Family farms have been disappearing, more land is posted against hunting, and land once open to hunting is now developed into housing and retail tracts.
  7. Societal influences against hunting – Loudmouths like PETA, the HSUS and anti-hunting celebrities influence many kids, and the strident political message that guns are evil aids and abets them. The anti-hunting movement is dead wrong on facts, but is a powerful philosophical force shaping kids minds.
I’m not insensitive to the plight of small businesses in rural areas. In fact, I’m saddened to see much of the broader conflict in our nation as a tug-o-war between rural and urban. The battle over gun control can largely be defined that way. Terms like “fly-over country” and “brain drain” illustrate that – as rural kids leave for college, it’s hard to bring them back.

If the PGC would manage deer in order to keep local economies afloat, it would fail on two fronts. Economies would still suffer, and such a goal would take the agency far away from its mandate to manage every wildlife species, not just the ones we hunt.

Deer can devastate a habitat, but by themselves deer do not drive an economy. Yes, the deer population is lower than it used to be. Yes, that has an effect on the interests of people. But the herd reduction program did not decimate the deer herd. Pennsylvania has a healthy deer herd, and if you know where to look, you can still find plenty of them, and nice ones, in the big woods of northern Pennsylvania.
Cody Gulvas, Leo Simbeck, Cory Gulvas and his fiancée Ashlee Early know where to look for deer. They rounded up an impressive collection of Pennsylvania shed antlers in 2013. Where did they find more than 80 antlers? In some of the most rugged mountainous areas of northern Pennsylvania -- the places where many people say the deer herd has been decimated. And all came from public land. (Photo courtesy of Denny Gulvas.)

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Lowdown on the Latest Deer Diseases

by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, June 8, 2013.)

HIV. COPD. EHD. CWD. Every day you’re bombarded by a blizzard of acronyms, many of them medical terms. We have too many to remember, and assigning them an alphabet soup of letters can make them scary. Like IRS. The four I named are all scary. The first two kill people. The last two kill deer – and hunters should know something about them.

You might be sick of acronyms, but every deer hunter 
should educate himself about deer diseases, especially CWD.

EHD is an acronym that stands for the tongue-twister Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, sometimes called Blue Tongue Virus (though Blue Tongue is a similar but slightly different affliction). EHD is carried by flying insects that bite – gnats, midges, and no-see-ums. Once bitten, it takes only a week for the deer to develop symptoms, which include internal hemorrhage, weakness, high fever, bruising, and shortness of breath. The animal dies within 8 to 36 hours. EHD affects ruminants (animals that chew their cud) – mainly sheep, cattle, goats, buffalo, deer, and antelope.

The fact that EHD is transmitted by flying, biting insects holds the key to the reason why it’s a localized disease. It’s seasonal, and less persistent in cold weather. It kills individual deer, but deer populations recover.

CWD is an acronym for Chronic Wasting Disease. It belongs to a class of diseases that include mad cow disease (big news in cattle herds in England a few years ago), and scrapie in sheep. These are diseases of the nervous system, and are caused by something you may not have heard of – prions. The word “prion” is a combination of the words “protein” and “infection.” In laymen’s terms we can refer to a prion as an infectious, mutated protein.

Simpler than viruses, prions don’t even qualify as living things, so it’s impossible to kill them. CWD affects cervids – whitetails, mule deer, elk and moose – by creating a network of lesions in neural tissue (brain, spinal chord, etc.) Ultimately the brain develops a sponge-like texture. It may take months or years for CWD to develop, and it can’t be diagnosed in a living animal. CWD is also untreatable and universally fatal.

Chronic Wasting Disease might be much more devastating than EHD, and its effects are likely to last much, much longer. Those two statements rest on the fact that the prion that causes CWD lasts almost indefinitely. It infects the soil where deer feed, and may even enter the plants they feed on. There’s even evidence that the prions can pass through an animal’s digestive tract and still remain infectious. And it doesn’t subside in cold weather.

Today, 21 states and two Canadian provinces have confirmed cases of CWD. At least 19 have confirmed cases in wild cervid populations, including Pennsylvania.  

Biologists have found no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans. That’s the good news. We don’t know if CWD will reach epidemic proportions, but it’s serious enough that every hunter should know what it is and what he can do to help keep it from spreading.

Fortunately, we live in a day when information is readily available through the Internet, and most hunters can easily research the rules for the areas they hunt. Virtually all state game agencies publish what you need to know in their game regulations booklets, and on their websites. Two other websites with up-to-date information are www.knowcwd.com, and www.cwd-info.org.

You might be sick of acronyms, but every hunter should educate himself about deer diseases, especially CWD, and be an intelligent participant in the battle against it.