Dr. Krysten Schuler: Bradford native and wildlife researcher

Dr. Krysten Schuler, right, is recognized as one of the top researchers regarding Chronic Wasting Disease. She was welcomed to a recent meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting Fishing and Conservation by Robb Miller, who serves as the advisor for the Council. 

Wildlife, management of the resources, and sportsmen — coupled with science — is important for the wellbeing of a number of species. A good example is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which is affecting white-tailed deer. Everyday, science is revealing more about CWD, and a former Bradford resident is at the forefront of today’s CWD research.

“I graduated from high school in Bradford,” Krysten Schuler said. “My parents still live there. My dad is very involved with the Bradford Gun Club and my mom has horses and enjoys trail riding. I enjoyed having lots of woods to play in or to ride my horse. I also spent a lot of time on the Kinzua Dam in the summer and downhill skiing in Ellicottville in the winter.”

But what inspires a young student to seek out a career in science?

Schuler went on to say, “I definitely liked science throughout school and was a biology major at the University of Notre Dame. I decided to go to graduate school for wildlife. I did research for my PhD on chronic wasting disease because I thought wildlife health was a fascinating topic that needed more attention.

Today, Dr. Schuler is a faculty member at Cornell University in N.Y. She is at the “tip of the spear” regarding CWD in her career field.

Dr. Schuler collaborates with agencies including the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Pennsylvania Game Commission, and universities, and she also conducts research on other interesting projects including diagnostic testing, risk assessment, disease surveillance, and field studies.

Currently, there are those who do not believe CWD is a threat. Dr. Schuler responded, “There is a delicate balance of trying to communicate the seriousness of CWD without trying to be an alarmist. My philosophy is to operate by the ‘precautionary principle,’ which is the opposite of the burden of proof. In the case of CWD, we know the disease looks bad but we don’t have all the answers we would like. So rather than wait years to get that information, let’s be very cautious until CWD is proven to be a non-issue.”

Dr. Schuler has some recommendations regarding CWD. She said, “There are some practical things that can be done to slow the disease. One is to talk to your fellow hunters about CWD. Knowledge passed from a trusted friend or family member goes further than any other kind. Know the regulations in the state where you are hunting. Most states are requiring carcasses to be deboned, and all soft tissue to be removed from the skull cap if a hunter is going across state lines or harvested in a disease management area. Putting carcass waste in a landfill can also help get prions off the landscape.”

Is science beginning to catch up with CWD?

“There is very little funding available for CWD research, so it is going much slower than we would like,” Dr. Schuler pointed out. “We don’t have the same veterinary tools for CWD that we do for other diseases like vaccination, medical treatment, and quarantine of wild deer. The locations that have been successful in CWD management is when the response is fast and sustained. Illinois has been using sharpshooters in the CWD area for years, and they have managed to keep the CWD infection rate to 1%. Illinois is the only state that has shown a prolonged effort that keeps the disease low. Several other states have tried, but usually they give up too soon to make a difference.”

“We don’t know for sure where CWD came from. But since it is in the same family of diseases as “mad cow” disease, we have to be very cautious about this disease. It has spread across the country much faster with assistance by people moving live deer and elk, as well as carcasses from infected animals that might be moved by hunters.

So how is the Pa. Game Commission doing when it comes to CWD? And what is the Dept. of Ag doing regarding CWD?

“Right now, the Pa. Game Commission is putting on a full court press when it comes to CWD,” Dr. Schuler said. “They are investing in positions internally to specifically deal with CWD, as well as working with PennVet to develop testing capacity and expertise on the disease. The PGC is working with the National Deer Alliance to help get the message out on CWD. The NDA just released a nice video with some of the lessons learned from Wisconsin’s experience with the disease (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=EHqX9Fe-sXk&feature=emb_logo)

“I can’t comment on the Dept. of Ag because I haven’t been in touch with them on their program. It is alarming to me that CWD-positive herds are not being depopulated. They are continuing in business because there isn’t federal or state funding to indemnify the owners. There are potential issues with escapes, nose-to-nose contact with wild deer, and products leaving these facilities.”

“Currently, the PGC is on the right track when it comes to CWD. At this point in time are there additional actions being considered to be set into place. The only tool that we have to combat CWD right now is to try to decrease the density of deer when the disease is first found. We really need the public to understand that they need to support the state agency’s actions to control the disease. We need hunters to keep hunting and fill their tags. Most areas have deer over their population goals so there is a surplus of deer. If the public or hunters see an abnormal deer, it’s important to report that to the PGC.”

Dr. Schuler said, “Hunters can do a lot. Don’t congregate deer by feeding or baiting, don’t move whole carcasses, and report deer acting strangely or found dead without an obvious cause. Choose synthetic urine scents if you use that as a hunting tool. We know that CWD causes animals to die or be more likely to be killed. Without action, the disease is going to spread.”

And finally, Dr. Schuler said, “Be vocal in support of the PGC’s management plan if you want to do something about CWD.”

The public can review the draft plan until Feb. 29.

Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net

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