The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 13, 2012

Daily discussion: Did the state go overboard in response to chronic wasting disease?

By John Zaktansky
The Daily Item

— Once upon a time, deer hunting in the Valley was a critical part of providing for the family.

While today many hunters still use venison and other wild game to help augment their families’ meal options and stretch the budget, most in the Valley see the pursuit of deer in the late autumn more of a recreational activity, a tradition and a pastime.

Unless you are Melissa Beachel, who with her husband, Denis, runs Power View Whitetails near Danville. The deer they raise on their farm are sold for meat. While they do more than generate venison on the farm, the deer portion is still an important part of their annual income.

At least it was until the state placed a quarantine on the farm and 26 others across the state in light of two confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease in Adams County. The quarantine could last up to five years. For the next half-decade, the Beachels can’t sell their deer or can’t bring in new ones. Their deer operation has been frozen in place.

“You work so hard to follow all the regulations as honest people trying to do everything right. And now, we’re the ones who are stuck with deer that will need to be fed and cared for over the next five years and we can’t get anything in return,” said Melissa Beachel. “How are we supposed to manage that?”

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological illness that attacks the brain of cervids (deer, elk and moose), leaving behind lesions that ultimately kill the animal. There is no cure or vaccine. CWD is also contagious between deer via saliva, urine and feces.

The first confirmed case of CWD on the Adams County farm was reported in early October in a 3-year-old do that had died. State officials, worried about where the CWD came from, spent a large amount of energy tracing the path the infected doe took – starting at a Lycoming County farm years ago when it was first sold as a three-week-old fawn. From there, it lived at two other farms before making a home in Adams County.

The state dug up receipts, breeding records and other paperwork and found that deer which had either direct or indirect contact with the confirmed CWD doe now live on 27 different farms in the state. Those facilities were all recently quarantined, including two local farms – the Beachels and Nittany Mountain Hunting Preserve near New Columbia.

The state has a reported 1,100 deer farms and hunting preserves. The 27 quarantined farms represent  a hair more than 2 percent of the state’s deer facilities. For a handful of the state’s deer producers, the quarantine was like winning the lottery – in a negative way.

It leaves people like the Beachels struggling to understand.

“And why? Because we happened to buy deer from a farm that years ago sold a 3-week-old fawn that eventually died from chronic wasting disease in a different part of the state?” said Melissa Beachel. “Who’s to say it didn’t get the disease at some point over the past several years down there?”

Of course, the state does not want to see CWD leak into the wild deer population for many reasons, including the loss of massive amounts of hunting revenue. According to Nittany Mountain Hunting Preserve owner Michael Ficks, the state acted appropriately in setting up the quarantines.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Ficks said. “If there is something out there, we need to stop it. I respect the state for taking a hard stance on the issue.”

Not that Ficks doesn’t feel the negative effects of the quarantine himself.

“The feed bill just keeps rising. We had considered scaling down as it was,” he said. “It is a lot of work. You feed and care for the deer all the time waiting to get to this point when we start having hunts and now we can’t do it.”

So, the question remains … are strict quarantines a smart move by state officials that are racing the clock in attempting to contain CWD?

Is it OK that small-scale deer farmers could be faced with major financial difficulties as they care for deer that they can’t gain any income from for the foreseeable future?

Does this mean moving forward as more cases are confirmed that even more of the state’s deer farmers will be locked down? How deep will it go? Is it a case of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few?

We’d love to hear your opinion on this topic.

Email comments to jzaktansky@dailyitem.com