FILE - PA deer 9-7-2019

A doe is seen Sept. 7, 2019, wandering through a cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Some of the data points about chronic wasting disease almost sound like science fiction. It moves through a deer population via an infectious particle known as a prion, which unlike viruses and bacteria can survive in soil for years.

Once it gets established in a given area, it’s basically impossible to eradicate, and without intervention it can infect as much as half of a given deer herd within a few years.

It’s fatal to deer in all cases, and three Pennsylvania counties already have seen significant numbers of infections.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is aiming to take on the challenge of chronic wasting disease based on a program that has succeeded to some degree in other states. Representatives of the commission unveiled a draft response plan Thursday that would seek to significantly decrease restrictions on the number of deer that hunters can take in target areas.

Paradoxically, by allowing more deer to be harvested, the hope is that the overall population can be saved.

“On average, 350 deer will need to be harvested within each three mile radius to confidently detect Chronic Wasting Disease at a 1 percent infection rate,” Courtney Colley, a chronic wasting disease communication specialist for the commission, said at a news conference Thursday.

“To reach this goal, hunters collectively will need to harvest on average an additional four deer per square mile and submit all heads to head collection containers.”

The Game Commission offers to test any deer caught in the state, free of charge, for chronic wasting disease. Experts recommend that humans not eat meat from deer infected with the disease – while there are no cases of documented transmission to humans, the pathogen is similar to that found in mad cow disease, which has jumped between species.

“Once in the soil, prions can remain infectious for several years,” Colley said. “Studies have shown that prions can withstand freezing and thawing, as well as temperatures reaching 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. So you're not cooking this out of your meat.”

The growth in the number of cases in Pennsylvania has been rapid. In one of the commission’s targeted enforcement areas, the cases have gone from single digits each year from 2012-14, up to 12 cases in 2015, 25 in 2016, 79 in 2017 and 123 in 2018. The disease can lie dormant in a deer or elk for up to two years.

Colley cited programs in states such as Illinois, Minnesota and New York that she said have proven successful at containing the disease. By allowing increased hunting in areas where the disease is found, those states have managed to halt the growth in the disease.

Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Game Commission, noted that government intervention alone would not be sufficient to hold back the disease in Pennsylvania.

“To do this, we need the support of our hunters – our hunters are our front lines to dealing with this disease,” Burhans said. “Over the next six months, we will be traveling throughout the state to present information about CWD, the proposed response plan and listen to hunter and citizen concerns and answer questions. … The final plan will take into account what we receive from hunters, citizens and legislators through our discussions throughout the state.”

The Game Commission is currently taking comments on the proposed response plan and will continue to do so through Feb. 29, 2020.

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.