A Natural View

Hunter protests have stopped the PGC-planned targeted removal of potentially sick deer in Blair County.

Hunter protests stop the PGC’s targeted removal of deer

Bright orange billboards have been popping up in southern Blair and northern Bedford counties. The billboards proclaim “PA Hunters — Stand Up For Your Rights Before the Game Commission Slaughter [sic] the Deer — Estimated to shoot 2000 deer.” The billboards depict a revolver pointed at a spotted fawn and look like they were sponsored by an animal rights group.

What action warrants these graphic anti-Pennsylvania Game Commission billboards?

The agency recently announced plans for the targeted removal of deer in specific areas of Disease Management Area 2, where the incidences of chronic wasting disease are the highest. DMA 2 is the only area of the state where CWD has repeatedly turned up in the wild deer population, and it includes the area south of routes 453 and 22 through Huntingdon County. According to the Commission, the numbers of infected deer are growing.

DMA 2 currently encompasses thousands of square miles of southcentral Pennsylvania — including all or parts of 13 counties. However, according to the Commission, the highest rates of CWD are found in northern Bedford and southern Blair counties in the Roaring Spring and East Freedom areas. The location selected for targeted removal of deer is in and near State Game Land 147.

CWD is a fatal disease of deer and elk that is caused by a prion. It was first discovered in Pennsylvania in a captive deer in Adams County in 2012. A few months later, in 2013, it turned up in wild deer in Bedford County.

Hunter and landowner Matt Johnson of Roaring Spring, in Blair County, is responsible for the billboards and he did not stop there.

“I think that we have five billboards up now — four in Blair County and one in Bedford County,” Johnson said. “More will go up as space becomes available, but I want to add information about my Go Fund Me page to the new billboards.”

Johnson met with the CWD coordinator for the Game Commission, Jared Oyster and agency communications specialist Courtney Colley on January 31. He was happy that they were willing to meet with him, but not satisfied with the results of the meeting. He thinks that if necessary, hunters should harvest the deer, not sharpshooters.

Johnson said that the purpose of the billboards is to alert hunters about the “cover-up,” as he called it, of the plan to have US Department of Agriculture sharpshooters kill hundreds of deer in his area. Johnson learned about the plan indirectly after a local deer processer was contacted about bidding on a contract to process 750 deer.

Johnson claims that the only reason that the Commission put out a news release was because of his billboards and an interview on WJAC television. The timeline seems to support his assertion, however targeted removal of deer in DMA 2 has been mentioned in news releases and meetings for over two years. A discussion of killing thousands of deer, as Johnson claims, was never mentioned.

“I know that the Game Commission offered extra antlerless deer permits within the disease management area,” Johnson acknowledged. “My friends and I bought those permits and just burned them. I didn’t know that it would come to this.”

Johnson said that he has spent approximately $2000 on the billboards, which has been partially supported by his Go Fund Me page. Johnson seems to have lots of followers, with one of his social media posts being shared over 1000 times.

Johnson’s Facebook page and the new one that he created — PA Hunters Against Target Removal — are ripe with conspiracy theories claiming that it is all about money, or instead, blaming it on the “insurance companies” or unnamed entities “higher than the Game Commission.” Threats were made to stop purchasing hunting licenses. At least one social media poster suggested that hunters disrupt any attempt by sharpshooters to kill deer. Things could get ugly.

On the evening of February 2, about two dozen protesters gathered along Hoover Road near the Blair-Bedford County line. People carried signs and shouted at the occupants inside of a house that they believed to be rented by USDA sharpshooters. The owner of the house acknowledged that he had rented it for four months for $16,000, but that he would not let them shoot deer on his property. The protest, organized by Johnson, was peaceful.

“I want the higher-ups to know what is going on and that us hunters are unhappy.” Johnson said. Johnson has contacted an attorney and he plans to file a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Game Commission to stop the targeted removal operation. This might be done in conjunction with a local sportsmen’s club that Johnson would not name at this time.

“We intend to file a lawsuit in mid February,” Johnson noted in a phone interview. “This is my hunting heritage and I want the slaughter stopped. I think that the Game Commission owes an apology to a million hunters.”

Johnson’s political pressure was successful. Last Tuesday morning it was announced that the targeted removal of deer would be postponed. By late afternoon the Game Commission issued a news release:

“The Pennsylvania Game Commission has not received the necessary support from landowners in Bedford and Blair counties to move forward with plans to reduce the deer population in a 100-square-mile area as part of a pilot project on chronic wasting disease,” the release stated.

“Reducing deer numbers was part of a strategy to reduce the effect and spread of CWD.

“Other phases of the project, including placing GPS collars on deer to study their movements and survival, will continue. And it’s hoped that, by next year, increased awareness about CWD and the threat the disease poses to deer and elk statewide will bring about the support necessary locally to begin the phase of the project that has been put on hold,” the release continued.

“While the lack of access to private land is unfortunate, it could well demonstrate there is work to do when it comes to educating the public about CWD, and we will be ramping up our efforts to bring the facts about this disease and its potential impacts on Pennsylvania to light,” said Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management Director Matthew Schnupp. “As it is now, CWD has been detected only in a few parts of the state. Our pilot project in Bedford and Blair counties is being conducted where the problem is worst, but hunters in most areas of the state have not had to deal with CWD in the deer that they hunt, or abide by the regulations intended to slow its spread.

“While CWD is here in Pennsylvania, we can manage the disease to limit its spread and protect as many of the state’s deer as we can,” Schnupp said. “And we will continue to work hard to implement disease-control measures that benefit Pennsylvania’s deer and deer-hunting tradition.”

What is my take on all of this? I think that the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s targeted removal of deer was the best plan possible to slow the spread of CWD in the state. It is unfortunate that uninformed hunters put a stop to it.

Was this a “sneak attack” or “cover-up” by the PGC? Hardly, anyone attending a recent CWD meeting or reading news reports should have known that this has been talked about as the best strategy for over two years. It was executed on a small scale in another county last winter.

As it stands now, the selfish actions of a few have messed up an expensive research project and those same actions will aid the spread of the disease north of Huntingdon and Tyrone as well as in other directions. I guess Johnson is happy, but I am not. You should not be, either.

Mark Nale can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

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