Focus on disease management of the new wildlife program

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More than a century ago, the unregulated commercial crop put most of Pennsylvania's wildlife on the verge of blinking.

These days, the disease is the threat.

White nose syndrome has reduced populations of some bat species by 99%. The West Nile virus continues to hammer the rippled grouse and, perhaps, other birds. Chronic wasting disease is spreading through the white-tailed herd.

"At no time in history have wildlife diseases posed more problems to wildlife and its conservation," said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

A new partnership aims to address it.

The Pennsylvania Future Futures Program is part of the commission with the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, known as Penn Vet. Together, the two entities plan to monitor, study and manage wildlife in the most comprehensive way ever.

And, just as important, they say, they tell the public how those efforts are going and what needs to be done.

Consider it a kind of clearing house. The program – with a database in progress – will take the information collected in the field and host it in one place. There, scientists and researchers can see where each part fits into the larger picture, said Matthew Schnupp, director of the wildlife management office of the commission.

"This will enable faster and better response between multiple agencies and the public," said Julie Ellis, senior research investigator at Penn Vet.

He called it "an investment in Pennsylvania's wildlife heritage".

It is expensive.

The commission will pay Penn Vet $ 10 million over the next five years. This makes it one of the largest and most expensive programs of the agency.

Some of that money will go to the staff. Penn Vet is hiring 12 people – wildlife veterinarians, pathologists and the like – to study wildlife diseases. One will be hosted at the commission's Harrisburg site.

Some are going for equipment.

Schnupp stated that the agency has purchased the tools needed to test tissue samples for disease waste. It is specifically dedicated to Pennsylvania.

This will have tangible and immediate benefits, said Burhans.

Hunters who send deer parts for tests can expect results in seven to 10 days, rather than weeks or months, Burhans notes.

This requires money. But there is no way around it in a world where no one can predict what will be the "next big thing" in wildlife sickness, Schnupp said.

"So we want to build something that allows us to manage everything that comes to us, related to diseases, in a much more sustainable and reliable way. This is the vision of this program, "said Schnupp.

"The new diseases will come," agreed Burhans. "We would prefer to be at the forefront of those diseases rather than face the consequences as they develop."

"Wildlife interacts with pets and even humans," said Lisa Murphy, a veterinarian and resident director of Penn Vet's New Bolton Center. So veterinarians always consider wildlife.

"Sometimes it's the focus of attention, sometimes not. But it's always there," Murphy said.

But veterinary training focused specifically on wildlife is a growing training camp, added Ellis. This program will draw on that expertise, he said.

"This will allow not only documentation and a more in-depth investigation into the disease, as well as management. But it will allow biologists (on commission) to spend less time dealing with disease issues and more time managing wild animal populations, "said Ellis.

"Our overall goals are to improve our ability to coordinate surveillance and disease response among agencies, our hunting community and the general public."

Schnupp, credited as the man who initiated this project, said that Cornell University and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation are part of what the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program means. But it is on a much smaller scale.

He is not aware of anything like this program, of this size, anywhere in the country.

If there's one thing that really sets this program apart, though, Schnupp said, it's in messaging.

Most research efforts are based on the "project", he said. Typically, researchers collect data, analyze it, then deliver the results to agencies such as the "wish good luck" commission.

In this case, the researchers – "content experts", called them – will play a role in public relations and education. Schnupp said he would help the commission explain to lawmakers, hunters and the general public what the disease threats are, what management options are available and what measures need to be taken.

"I think it's an important distinction between what we are doing and what has been proven in the past," said Scnupp. "And because I think this will be successful."

Burhans agreed. There are some hunters who "don't want to believe" what the Game Commission has to say, particularly regarding chronic wastage disease, he admitted. And there's a lot of misinformation out there, he added.

Indeed, last winter the hunters of protests were able to close the Commission's plans to shoot in the hundreds, if not thousands, of deer in an area of ​​south-central Pennsylvania where diseases are rampant. The idea was to see if such a policy could stop or slow the spread of the disease.

But it never took off. Instead, the commission is spending the next year talking to the public. Only then will it release its expected and now overdue CWD response plan.

"This scientific program for wildlife health" provides another credible voice for such efforts, Burhans said.

He called his training a "paradigm shift" needed in wildlife management.

Schnupp said he hoped it would last much longer than the original five-year contract. In fact, with the passage of time, he imagines that it includes data from other states, since the diseases "do not respect state boundaries".

That program will not necessarily lead to cures for diseases, said Burhans, although it would be ideal. Rather, it could identify gaps in knowledge, suggesting for example where the commission is or is not collecting enough data.

And, above all, he said, it will allow the commission and partners like Penn Vet to tell the public – and in particular hunters, "our friends" – which appropriate management measures must be taken, on CWD and other diseases.

"One thing we have learned from other states with chronic wasting disease, if it does not involve the public, seems to have no chance of long-term success," Burhans said.

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