It’s fall in Adams County and the South Mountains of South Central Pennsylvania. A variety of native trees, like an artist’s brushes, color the land in oranges, yellows and reds as though they had been spilled on an artist’s palette. As I stood talking with Pa. Forest Ranger Scott Greevy, acorns fell from the surrounding oaks, crashing like gunfire onto his truck.

Deer hunting season was about to open and our main topic was an illness carried by Whitetail deer.

Baiting – the practice of putting out stuff such as salt licks, corn, apples and other tasty morsels – to attract the critters to places convenient to the hunter, photographer or other observer, is legal in Pennsylvania – except when it isn’t. Bait must be removed – all of it – 30 days prior to start of hunting season. Leaving it in place is one charge, actually hunting over the human-provided goodies is another.

But baiting is about more than the law. In South Central Pennsylvania it always is illegal because Chronic Wasting Disease – which attacks the deer’s brain and cause a slow death – has been confirmed in Franklin, Adams, Cumberland, Bedford and Fulton counties.

“It’s not a full list but it’s our general area,” Greevy said.

CWD is caused by a prion – a malformed protein that is not treatable, is always fatal, and may take 18-24 months to show symptoms, “so by the time deer start showing symptoms, it’s all game over.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CWD is endemic to the area of the common border areas of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. The CDC article also notes, “… limited investigations have not identified strong evidence for CWD transmission to humans.”

“The (Pennsylvania) Game Commission will also tell you if you got sick from eating CWD-infected meat, you would be the first person ever in history to get sick (from the disease),” Greevy commented. “There is no evidence that anyone has ever got sick from eating CWD deer meat.”

He noted although the disease is carried in the heads and spines of infected deer; the meat has been shown to be clean.

But CWD also has defied eradication, in spite of a variety of management practices created to get the numbers down. For instance, it is unlawful to take a deer from a CWD zone to a non-CWD zone.

Forest Ranger demonstrates use of CWD head bin
PA Forest Ranger Scott Greevy demonstrates depositing a deer head in a secure bin for later testing for Chronic Wasting Disease.

The state game commission also has installed so-called “head bins” – among them are two in Michaux State Forest – and others at various butcher and taxidermy shops in the region – where successful hunters may deposit the head of their deer, with the deer tag attached.

The game commission collects the heads for testing and in two to four weeks, the hunter will be notified if the head was positive for CWD. If it was, the game commission will issue a replacement deer tag so the hunter may go hunting for another deer.

Pennsylvania is trying to control the disease. Baiting is prohibited in CWD zones because the disease can be transmitted by a deer contacting the urine or feces of another deer, or simply by touching noses, which can happen through a fence.

Baiting invites deer to congregate in unnaturally large groups, like human diners at a fire company spaghetti dinner, increasing the chances that one infected animal will pass the disease to numerous others.

“The more deer there are in an area, if CWD is present, the more deer are going to catch it,” he explained.

In certain Deer Management Assistance Program areas, such as Kings Gap Environmental Education Center the game commission issues additional deer tags.

“The goal for that is increased monitoring,” Greevy explained. “If they put a couple hundred more tags up in the Kings Gap area and the tests come up through the head bins, they know this is what percentage we have – or there is no detected CWD here – so the monitoring gets better.”

Mad Cow Disease – which is similar to CWD – does not seem to happen on small farms with only a few cattle. And Covid has its best success killing humans when we are densely packed in our cities.

Piling bait to more densely populate a group of deer is a good way to make Chronic Wasting Disease more successful at infecting our deer herd. Getting caught at it can make an expensive afternoon for the errant hunter. Just sayin’ …