White-nose syndrome has killed 99 percent of most cave-bat species. Chronic wasting disease continues to spread to new parts of Pennsylvania, infecting and killing deer and threatening hunting tradition. West Nile virus has left Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse, with an uncertain future. At no time in history has disease posed more problems for wildlife and its conservation.
In August 2019, Penn Vet and the Game Commission announced the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program, a new science-based, wildlife health program that will increase disease surveillance, management and research to better protect wildlife across the Commonwealth.
For hunters who submit samples from deer they harvest for chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing, the partnership will provide much faster turnaround for test results – about seven to 10 days as opposed to weeks or sometimes months – as well as the ability to track test results online. But there are broader benefits, as well.
The Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program will dedicate 12 employees, one of them working full-time out of the Game Commission’s Harrisburg headquarters, to address wildlife diseases. Not only will that allow for more thorough disease documentation, research and management, it will allow agency biologists to spend less time dealing with disease issues and more time focusing on managing wildlife populations.
Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management Director Dr. Matthew Schnupp said the new partnership greatly will benefit wildlife and all who care about conservation. “The Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program demonstrates how public-private partnerships can advance the health of our wildlife and the resilience of their habitats,” Schnupp said. “This initiative directly supports the Game Commission’s mission to safeguard the Commonwealth’s wildlife resources for current and future generations. Our research-oriented partnership with Penn Vet will be invaluable in helping us define wildlife diseases, their impacts, and how we can manage them. It will undoubtedly enhance our ability to coordinate disease responses across agencies, our hunting community, and the general public.”
Based out of Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center located in Kennett Square, Pa., the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program will be led by ecologist Dr. Julie Ellis, and veterinarian and toxicologist Dr. Lisa Murphy. “The Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program establishes a sustainable infrastructure for collaboration, and really represents a paradigm shift in managing wildlife disease,” said Ellis. “Not only are we charting a novel and comprehensive program that helps protect Pennsylvania wildlife, but ultimately, we are working to safeguard the health of Pennsylvania’s nearly 13 million residents from the potential impacts of wildlife disease. Land use in Pennsylvania is changing, and wildlife species are coming into closer contact with humans. We need to be prepared for these possible, broader consequences on both animal and human health.”
“As the state’s only veterinary school, Penn Vet has a depth of experience investigating disease in veterinary medicine,” said Murphy. “Through our affiliation with the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS), we have the capacity and wildlife health expertise to support this exciting new partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.”
The Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program was established under a five-year, $10 million contract financed by the Game Commission. Penn Vet was the only university to submit a bid for the work. Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said the program is a necessary expense in an age when impacts are mounting from many wildlife diseases, some of which afflict humans. The program’s benefits to wildlife will be well worth the cost, he said. “The Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program will expand and expedite the Game Commission’s capacity to identify, detect, and manage diseases in Pennsylvania,” Burhans said. “It is a responsible step forward for a wildlife management agency that seemingly is besieged by new wildlife issues almost annually.