Park considers plan for chronic wasting disease

Shenandoah National Park wants to amend its plan for managing chronic wasting disease, which recently was detected in white-tailed deer 12 miles from the park’s northern borders.

This proximity, according to Karen Beck-Herzog, park public relations officer, is the primary reason why the park is seeking an amendment to its Chronic Wasting Disease Detection/Assessment Plan, which was approved Dec. 5, 2013. The change would authorize the park to lethally remove up to 500 deer in denser portions of the populations within a five-year period.

Currently, the park is in a state of active assessment and detection. This research is largely taking place in an area around Frederick County — outside of the park’s boundaries. Since 2009, all seven of the county’s confirmed cases for chronic wasting disease have occurred in that area.

Specifically, the area of Fredrick County that is west of Interstate 81 is where the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is conducting research into the disease. That’s because deer residing in or near the park often venture into Frederick County.

Department wildlife veterinarian Dr. Megan Kirchgessner said that a complete picture of the disease and its effect on white-tailed deer could be 20-30 years down the road.

“[CWD] is not going to cause precipitous declines in deer population,” Kirchgessner said.

At the same time, Kirchgessner said that the department still “considers it [to be] a very serious threat to the long-term health to deer populations.”

Beck-Herzog admitted that it is unclear how quickly the disease could spread through the deer population. “It could be one year, it could be 20.”

She said the ultimate goal of the amendment — as well as the combined research of the park and the state — is to understand the disease more and reduce the risk of it spreading.

As of today, the park has not needed to resort to lethal removal. The 2013 plan gave the park the authority to lethally remove 200 to 300 deer during a five-year period.

Under the new amendment, if a case were detected within five miles of the park, deer would be lethally removed from high-density portions of the population.

According to Beck-Herzog, the meat of deer lethally removed would be tested for signs of the disease. Any meat that is positively diagnosed would be removed via incineration or through the use of landfills.

On the other hand, any deer meat that is negatively diagnosed would be donated to Virginia Hunters for the Hungry. The intent, according to Beck-Herzog, would be to keep the healthy meat donations within area counties.

However, nothing is official yet. The park will host three public meetings next week: the first will be at the Crozet Public Library in Crozet on Monday; the second at the Warren County Community Center in Front Royal on Tuesday; and the third will be at Elkton Commmunity Center in Elkton on Thursday. Each meeting will run from 7-9 p.m.

The public will be able to ask questions and offer suggestions about the proposed amendment.

In addition, Beck-Herzog added that another reason for the public meetings is to inform the public on exactly what chronic wasting disease is and what it can do to deer.

It has often been described as similar in nature to mad cow disease. However, Kirchgessner notes that the major difference between mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease is that mad cow affects humans.

According to a news release, there is no scientific data that suggests that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans. Because of this, Kirchgessner insists that the disease “should not inhibit people from enjoying the outdoors.”

Beck-Herzog also noted that hikers, campers and hunters should not be concerned about their health. The real threat the disease poses in Virginia, she said, is to the white-tailed deer population.

Beck-Herzog regrets the amendment is being proposed, but said she understands why.

“We need to have a plan to protect the whitetail deer.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com