Park seeks imput on deer disease plan

FRONT ROYAL – Shenandoah National Park has received mostly positive feedback from its proposal to lethally remove deer in order to better manage chronic wasting disease.

Few people attended a public forum held Tuesday at the Warren County Community Center in Front Royal, but a forum held in Crozet drew nine people and 25 attended Thursday’s forum in Elkton.

Jim Schaberl, the park’s chief of natural and cultural resources, the majority of the responses at the meetings have been positive.

“Once people really understand the history and biology of this disease, they are understanding the necessity of [the amendment],” Schabrel said.

The proposed change in the park’s Chronic Wasting Disease Detection/Assessment Plan would permit the killing of 500 deer in high-density population areas in the park within a period of five years. If approved, it would go into effect in January.

Park Superintendent Jim Northup and Scharberl presented information on the plan at the Front Royal meeting. Northrup noted that the 500 deer the park would be authorized to remove represents around 8 percent of the estimated 6,000-8,000 deer that reside within the park.

Other options have been discussed, including altering habitats within the park and building a fence around the park, but were dismissed because they weren’t viable, Schaberl said.

“Our goal is to decrease the amplification of the disease if and when it arrives in the park,” Schaberl said. This is why, he said, the park is seeking to lethally remove deer from certain portions of the park.

The most notable area for deer removal would be around Big Meadows. Schaberl said the goal of these removals – pending a case of the disease within five miles of the park – would be to “create a level playing field.”

Even if a case of the disease is found within five miles of the park before the public commenting period expires on Dec. 10, the amendment will still not be active. Schaberl said the park would use its 2013 plan of detecting and assessing until the amendment is approved.

With the amendment, the park is essentially looking at where the deer are located and calculating what percentage of the population would have to be removed in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

The park estimates that it would only have to remove 250-300 deer within that five year period, according to Schabrel.

Schaberl said the lethal removal would also be a process of maintaining those percentages within the population.

Another aspect the park addressed at the forums was how the disease was able to make its way to Virginia. The first reported case of wasting disease was in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1967.

Although not entirely sure how it arrived, Schaberl said “All evidence indicates that it [probably] spread through either moving live animals or animal parts across the country.”

This presents a few problems, according to Schaberl. For one, deer can catch the disease by coming into contact with any part of another infected deer.

In addition, habitats that carry the disease can also infect deer. “Chronic wasting is a prion, or a mutant protein, it … can be resonant in the soil for a very long time,” Schaberl said.

Not only that, but as both Schaberl and Northup asserted, there is no cure for chronic wasting disease.

The planned amendment is also what the park calls “an adaptive process.” According to Schaberl, this means that, after a period of five years where deer are lethally removed, the park can reevaluate its plan.

He also said that the plan could change along with new developments of the disease.

“We are hoping that by doing this and slowing the disease spread, it allows science to catch up,” Schaberl said.

According to Schabrel, the park has not received a large amount of comments online. The goal of this approach, according to Schabrel, was to “let the public meetings run their course and then let the public comment online.”

Schabrel expects the park to receive more feedback on the proposed amendment near the end of the process.

Anyone wishing to post a comment on the park’s wasting disease plan can do so by going to this link: http://tinyurl.com/m9odks6.

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