Chronic Wasting Disease, an always-fatal neurological disease affecting white-tail deer, mule deer, elk and moose, has been discovered at Front Royal, within twelve miles of the Shenandoah National Park’s northern boundary, Park Superintendent Jim Northup told an audience at Crozet Library February 5. In 2009 it was discovered about 23 miles away from the park. A park report describes the advance as “rapid.”
“It’s significant now in West Virginia,” he said.
Northup said that the character of the 105-mile Skyline Drive and the edge-habitat nature of deer likely means that once the disease invades the park, it will advance southward along the scenic road and reach southern counties bordering the park.
“The only way to slow it is to thin the deer herd,” he said.
Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy affecting the brains and nervous systems of deer and has no treatment. It is transmitted by prions, a type of protein, in the soil. Animals are infected by eating contaminated grass. The main symptom is loss of weight over time. Listlessness and repetitive walking in a pattern are also noticed.
“It’s like mad cow disease and it spreads through body fluids,” he explained. “It lives a long time in the soil and survives fire.”
“Skyline Drive could function like a fuse and spread disease south,” he said. He said most of the deer in the park are around Big Meadows. Coyotes have come back in the park and are suppressing the deer population.
Forty percent of the 200,000-acre park is designated as wilderness and it includes 500 miles of trails. Visitation was up 10 percent in 2014 with 1.2 million visitors, about the annual average for the last decade, Northup said. The drive is in “fabulous shape,” he said, and only one of its 72 overlooks remains to be refurbished. Lodging and wayside exhibits are also being renovated. He said that bike lanes on the road are unlikely to happen, but the park will hold two bike-only days a year.
The Emerald Ash Borer has been discovered in the park. The invasive insect destroys ash trees, which comprise four percent of the SNP’s trees, he said. “That’s an awful lot of trees,” he reminded listeners.
He said feral hogs in Culpeper County are also a problem for the park. “They get to be an ecological disaster because they root for food like little bulldozers.”
Northrup said that the Park Service used to think that forest fires needed to be suppressed but now “We realize that some ecosystems are fire-dependent,” he said. In some zones of the park fires are no longer managed, but are allowed to burn until they meet a natural barrier. The park also starts “prescribed burns” to keep certain landscapes open.
Northup, raised in northern Virginia, started his career in the National Park Service at Shenandoah as a ranger—“I got paid to go hiking”—and came back 35 years later as its leader. His career has taken him to eight national parks, including the Grand Canyon and Picture Rocks in Michigan. “I couldn’t be more lucky than to be here,” he said.
He called Crozet “a wonderful town where lots is going on. It’s one of our very important gateway communities to the park.”