Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shenandoah National Park -The Assault On The Whitetail Continues

When I first heard of the CWD study at Shenandoah National Park back in 2012, the first thought that entered my mind was that this was just the preliminary step toward a drastic herd reduction in the park. As it turns out it seems my worst fears are going to be more than realized, but for some time park officials seemed to  divert attention away from what they really intended to do and to downplay the severity of it.

In a News Release dated December 5, 2013  SNP officials announced that their  staff had completed a planning process for a Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Detection and Assessment Plan.  This followed the park  receiving a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) decision. The purpose of the CWD plan at that point was to establish a framework in which SNP officials could determine whether CWD was present in the deer population within the park and if was found to determine the number of infected animals and their location in the park.  This would all come together in a   management plan to deal with CWD in the park and to co-operate with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in detecting the disease, etc.

The news release went on to list four options for the detection and/or assessment of CWD within the park.,
 1. Opportunistic sampling (mostly testing road-killed deer)
 2. Targeted surveillance(looking for and sampling sick/emaciated deer)
 3. Enhanced live-testing (live-sampling healthy appearing)
  4. Lethal removal

At this point the lethal removal option appeared to be downplayed as the third paragraph of the news letter states, "Sampling will occur in areas of the park within 30 miles of a known CWD case. If needed to achieve a statistically valid sample size for the detection or assessment of CWD, the park may lethally sample up to 150 deer over a three year period for detection or approximately 70 over a two year period to determine prevalence and distribution. The park will only lethally remove deer for sample after exhausting all other non-lethal sampling methods (e.g., enhanced opportunistic (mostly road-kill), enhanced live-testing, and hunter-harvest/road-kill testing by the VDGIF within the surveillance area).The park will primarily sample and remove deer near the closest developed areas (e.g. Dickey Ridge, Mathews Arm, Skyland,and Big Meadows). Deer will be sampled from developed areas because these areas have higher deer densities and are, therefore, at greater risk of CWD introduction and spread .Lethal removal sampling would occur during periods of low visitation."

Pay special attention to this sentence from the paragraph above, "The park will only lethally remove deer for sample after exhausting all other non-lethal sampling methods".  If someone read this in a positive frame of mind, it tended to relieve their concerns as it gave the impression that lethal removal was extremely unlikely to happen or be minor in nature if it did,  but if we jump forward to late 2014 and read the SNP  CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE DETECTION AND ASSESSMENT PLAN AMENDMENT of October 2014 it becomes clear that they did employ lethal sampling methods on park deer or at least they certainly seem to say that they did.

If one goes to page 21 and looks  under the heading, "Impacts of plan with addition of proposed response actions" they state, "As previously analyzed (NPS 2012a), the current detection and assessment actions have some adverse impacts on visitor use and experience when visitors are unable to access certain areas of the park because area closures are required for safety reasons during lethal removal for sampling". They go on to point out on page 22 that "The addition of the proposed response actions may require additional area closures to conduct density reductions but these are not expected to noticeably change the level of impact on visitors beyond what was previously analyzed for detection and assessment actions, alone." Even if one reads the document quite closely there are times that you are not sure if they are writing about something that has already happened or if they are stating that something that is to happen in the future will result in little difference in visitor experience, over something that has already been planned for the future, but not yet implemented--it is that vague. .

The conclusion on page 23 does a good job of summing it up; however, and seems to leave little doubt that that they have already removed deer by lethal means when beginning with the second sentence they say "The adverse impacts of area closures for density reductions would not be noticeably different than what visitors currently experience when areas are closed for lethal removals for detection and assessment. Closures for density reductions may be somewhat longer or at different times of the year, but the overall adverse impacts would not change from existing, either individually or cumulatively".

Concerning negative impacts, the conclusion states, "The main difference as a result of adding response actions is decreased opportunities for visitors to regularly view and photograph deer in favored locations such as Big Meadows. Deer would still be present but in smaller numbers, on a less regular basis, and may be less tolerant of human presence. This would probably reduce the enjoyment of visitors who come to the park specifically to see deer in Big Meadows and other favorite viewing areas.  It goes on to justify the herd reductions by pointing out that, "This would not reduce the overall visitor experience of the park because deer densities in these areas would be more similar to natural deer densities that occur throughout the park, which is in keeping with the natural conditions and experience that the park was established to conserve and promote."

The conclusion sections ends with, " Public outreach and information may promote greater understanding of the need for the response actions, alleviating some of the adverse impacts".

 Thoughts  From Blog Readers

 Wildlife biologist, Kirk, commented on my last post, . " If your interest is in the conservation of the whitetail herd, let's agree that the current density of WT's on NPS property from Shenandoah to Gettysburg is somewhere between 20 and 50 TIMES the threshold for "high likelihood" of transfer of CWD as it's practiced in much tougher, sparse terrain out west. Not 20%. 2000%! And that number is likely pretty low.
I'm not arguing this as a hunter (Lord knows that hunting on NPS ground is a debacle at best), but as an actual wildlife biologist. Photography is important. Visitors (and fee payers) are important. But there's absolutely nothing in anyone's action plan to reasonably react to a 50% or 80% herd die off."

(I assume from this that he is meaning that  a 50% or 80% mortality rate from CWD is possible  rather than the lower rates usually reported  in states like Colorado are because of the much higher deer density in SNP.)

Kirk goes on to say, "There's no "non harsh" way through this, is what I'm proposing. Thanks for bringing up the issue, I hadn't heard about this, and I'm well versed in NPS' typical aversion to lethal management of anything, even exotic 30 foot long pythons."

Kirk  also made a follow-up comment-" Also keep in mind that all of these actions occur in context of multiple, often competing, management plans for the NPS units. NPS has been burned badly in court numerous times for not aggressively acting to take precautions to preserve designated habitats and species from "forsseable" threats. Whitetails are at a high density on NPS lands, we all agree on that, and guess what, they don't eat the invasive plants."

A Virginia wildlife photographer, Larry W. Brown, who is very familiar with SNP said, "To state that this is a bad situation for the SNP whitetails would be a major understatement. The ignorance of the SNP wildlife management officials to continue on with these herd reduction plans makes no sense whatsoever. There have been 7 known cases of CWD in that county since 2009, so if CWD was as bad as they make it out to be, wouldn't the deer populations in that area have already suffered? And have already spread into SNP? Since 2002, over 7,600 deer in Virginia have been tested for CWD. The Va DGIF has diagnosed ONLY 7 positive cases of CWD in Virginia. The statistics speak for themselves.

Another Virginia wildlife photographer, Jim Fields, who I first met on A Sunday summer  morning in Big Meadows back in the film photography day,s  chimed in with a very relevant comment, " SNP is using CWD as a scare tactic to convince the unknowing public that an 80% cull is needed in Big meadows. If CWD was a valid concern the parks efforts would focused at the North Entrance of the Park nearer to the CWD positive specimens. As Larry mentioned Virginia does not have mass numbers of deer killing over from CWD. There has only been 7 CWD positive deer found to date and none of these were in SNP.

As you know in the Amended plan there is no mention of herd management with consideration given to keeping genetically strong specimens or proper buck to doe ratios to produce quality bucks, does, and fawns for future generations. This is purely a kill plan to eliminate mass deer numbers specifically in Big Meadows.

Additionally If you visit SNP you will find no information regarding this subject displayed for the public at any of the park facilities. I purposely went in the Byrd visitor center yesterday I was handed a copy of the press release from behind the counter only after I inquired about the deer reduction in BM. There was no copies of the amended plan available at the center."

Another wildlife enthusiast,  Kaleen, said, " The Shenandoah National Park situation is heartbreaking. I have been going to the park for over 40 years and have loved and photographed the deer and other animals all that time. The park's plan is insane and illogical. There is not enough evidence to support such drastic action, and the only way to completely prevent this disease in the future would be to eliminate all the deer, which the current park plan would almost do. The park has ruined wildlife photography, to say nothing of the suffering, evident in photos, of the collared deer. The poor deer do not stand a chance, and this planned nighttime shooting will lead to poor shots and injured and suffering deer. The whole plan is senseless and will do nothing to prevent the disease from ever reaching the park, which is not likely anyway. The park officials seem to have lost their minds. They should take a lesson from Pennsylvania's game management."

My Thoughts

When we sift to the bottom of all of this it boils down to the fact that they are willing to sacrifice 80% of the deer herd at the popular whitetail areas such as Big Meadows because, according to Larry Brown , 7 deer have tested positive for CWD in the State of Virginia and this is confirmed by The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Website.

Remember they intend to Shoot 80% of the Big Meadows herd because of  SEVEN (7) positive deer in the entire state of Virginia, although it does appear that they need to find a positive deer within the 5 mile trigger distance from the park or within the park itself to begin the 80% reduction. According to a chart on page 8 this means the removal of 130-150 deer from the Big Meadows area to match the populations density of surrounding areas, yet  already  reports are surfacing of experienced outdoors people seeing only a few deer in the Big Meadows Area. Does this mean that a substantial number of deer have already been removed from the Big Meadows area to provide the samples needed for lethal CWD testing if enough specimens were not available from non-lethal methods?

Of course the fear is that CWD will spread and become established resulting in a permanent herd reduction if nothing is done, but even the most optimistic official in my experience will not contend that CWD response plans as implemented by any conservation or federal agency has any chance of stopping the disease--only in slowing the spread of it. 

Remember-To slow the spread of the disease down they plan to shoot up to 80% or the herd to prevent a loss that in a worst case scenario MAY reach 80% of the herd, but would more likely top around 30% and this is assuming that the disease becomes widely established in the park, which is by no means a given.

It is always easy to criticize, but much harder to be responsible for a plan of action, so it is fair to ask what would you do if you were in charge of the situation?

 If I were responsible for the management of the SNP whitetail herd I would manage the herd much as it was before the inception of the CWD study of 2012.  Only visibly sick or injured animals would be removed from the herd and there would be no preemptive shooting.  Expenditure of funds and efforts would be geared toward finding a cure for the disease if possible. It may be that this is something like the gypsy moth was with the oak forests and it will run its' course regardless of efforts applied to stopping it.

As it stands,  The SNP plan is currently being implemented and future amendments will likely meet with approval.  At this writing it appears that the outstanding whitetail viewing and photography  at SNP are over for my lifetime and perhaps for all time although it is to be hoped that at some point in the future responsible people will shake their head at the way war was declared on the whitetail deer in the name of saving them from CWD.

A special  thanks to those who submitted comments  on the November 12th post "Herd Reduction Looms For Shenandoah National Park Whitetails, which are featured in today's post.

Originally Published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.