Nearly eight months after the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issued a “do not eat” advisory for deer harvested in Fairfield because of the presence of so-called forever chemicals, the department will return to the area.
In the coming weeks, DIF&W will test deer, wild turkeys and other animals such as ruffed grouse, waterfowl, snowshoe hares and squirrels in an area expanded to more than 5 miles from what is ground zero for PFAS contamination in Maine to better assess the level of per- and and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS.
The additional wildlife testing — believed to be the most extensive ever done in the country — could result in consumption advisories for other game, or it may determine that animals living farther from sludge spreading sites aren’t contaminated with PFAS. That information will also help DIF&W determine the need for potential “do not eat” warnings as they test wildlife in up to 20 more locations through the end of the year.
Nate Webb, wildlife division director for DIF&W, said the department’s efforts will include more thorough testing of wildlife in and around Fairfield, even as it begins sampling animals in other locations identified as PFAS hot spots by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Because dealing with PFAS in game animals and birds is a relatively new field, Maine’s planned testing may be among the most extensive in the country.
“What we’re planning this summer, as far as we’ve been able to tell, will be the biggest sampling effort that’s ever been done for wildlife anywhere,” Webb said. “So we’re really kind of reading and writing the script in a lot of ways.”
The initial sampling in the area included only eight deer, five of which were found to have elevated levels of PFAS. The state responded with a conservative consumption advisory that encompassed an area that took into account the normal travel habits of the animals.
DIF&W harvested and tested 11 turkeys last spring, but determined that lower PFAS levels and the small amount of meat that people would eat did not warrant limitations.
“We want to get a better sense for how extensive the issue actually is and update that advisory, if warranted, to reflect more and better information,” Webb said. “We’ll also be doing some limited sampling of other species to see how widespread the issue is across species.”
The greatest concern is how PFAS is affecting humans, rather than what the chemicals might be doing to wildlife and fish. Those studies are likely to come later.
The second, more substantial wildlife sampling in Greater Fairfield will serve as a precursor to upcoming testing at other sites where the DEP has found PFAS in the soil and groundwater. Webb said DIF&W hopes to test wildlife in as many as 20 other places through the end of the year.
“A lot of them are in central and southern Maine,” said Webb, who doesn’t know yet what specific sites will be visited.
Testing at the other locations will be more limited in scope but enough to establish whether a problem with PFAS in wildlife may exist.
“We’re hopeful that we’re not going to find the same levels of contamination in wildlife in other locations, but we don’t really know,” Webb said.
In concert with its enhanced testing program, DIF&W is in the process of hiring a new staff member. The Wildlife Health Biologist will be responsible for overseeing activities related to PFAS and other contaminants.
“The focus will be in coordinating all of our agency’s efforts on PFAS and wildlife and our hope is that that person also has time in their work plan to coordinate wildlife disease surveillance and monitoring and management for the agency,” Webb said.
The job was created with funds from the state’s supplemental budget as a result of the discovery of PFAS in deer last fall, he said. In addition to PFAS study, the new biologist is expected to help DIF&W monitor other wildlife illnesses such as avian influenza, rabies and Chronic Wasting Disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services will again be charged with killing and taking samples from the animals, with some assistance from DIF&W employees. Webb noted the importance of having the cooperation of local landowners, who have provided access to their property.
“We’re not hunting. This is a sampling effort,” Webb said. “We’re using different methods and it’s not during the regular hunting season. We have to be sensitive to their needs.”
Webb said tissue samples from the harvested animals still must be sent to out-of-state laboratories for testing and will take several weeks to find out the results.
DIF&W hopes to have the results of PFAS testing in the Fairfield area, and hopefully several others, in time to issue any needed consumption warnings before the regular archery and crossbow hunting season begins in October.