Landowners voice concerns at wasting disease meeting

Local landowners bordering the Shenandoah National Park voiced their concerns about an amendment to the park’s chronic wasting disease management plan at a meeting this week.

The meeting, held Thursday evening at the Warren County Community Center in Front Royal, was the fourth public meeting the park has held to inform the public and answer questions about the plan.

The amendment, which has been discussed since mid-November, would authorize the park to kill up to 500 deer over a period of five years. This removal would only be initiated if a case of chronic wasting disease is detected within a five-mile buffer zone surrounding the park.

Essentially, park officials have described the amendment as a “density-reduction” measure that would seek to level the playing field and slow any kind of progression of the disease.

Park officials, like Jim Schaberl, the park’s chief of natural and cultural resources, have said that it is “more likely” that 200-300 deer would be killed in this case, with a potential goal of 97 within the first year.

Doug Boyd, one of those who organized the petition, owns more than 300 acres of land in Front Royal and said he found out about the proposal days before the last comment period ended.

“As I started to approach other landowners, I found out that they had no inclination that there was this plan in place,” Boyd said.

“I really appreciate [park superintendent Jim] Northup responding to my petition and having this additional meeting,” he added.

For this meeting, the park invited several members of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to help address landowners’ concerns.

The park and the state sought to clarify questions regarding the necessity of the plan as well as what the role of landowners could be.

One of the major concerns of several landowners in attendance was the notion of the park managing deer outside of its borders on private land.

Dr. Megan Kirchgessner, wildlife veterinarian for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said that the state is “exploring ways to work with the park and landowners” if chronic wasting disease progresses closer to the park.

Kirchgessner said private landowners are “certainly encouraged” to contact the department regarding any deer that are displaying symptoms of the disease.

She explained that the state is “looking at where the disease is at the moment” and is analyzing cases of killed deer from within the boundaries of its containment area located west of interstate 81.

Kirchgessner noted that the state will perform an annual assessment of its plan and determine if any changes are needed.

“We are waiting on the results of over 450 samples from 2014 and we should have those soon,” Kirchgessner said.

The results of those deer samples, Kirchgessner said, will largely dictate if and how the state adjusts its wasting disease management plan.

Officials and experts from the park and the state noted that the two entities are coordinating, sharing case information and looking to “prevent surprises” should the disease progress further.

The public also expressed questions over the areas the park has chosen for its density reduction for the lethal removal.

Jenny Powers, wildlife veterinarian National Park Service, explained that the removal of deer will primarily be targeted in areas where density is the highest.

According to Powers, the park created an “edge habitat” for the deer with no predators in the form of the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive.

“We think that, should the disease becoming established in the northern end of the park, it has the potential to spread more rapidly to the south,” Northup said.

Areas along this stretch would be specifically targeted for lethal removal in order to decrease the likelihood of the disease spreading.

Boyd said he had more questions following the meeting, but noted that it was a “very good, informative meeting.”

“I feel like we got a lot of questions answered,” Boyd said.

“I think this kind of connects people in a better way,” he said, “They have [our] contact information and can follow up with questions.”

The park will be accepting more public comments on the amendment until Jan. 31. Anyone wishing to submit a comment can do so by going to this website: http://tinyurl.com/oo883el.

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