Disease strikes state deer herd

Editor

Madison, Wis. Fear turned to reality for Wisconsin on Feb. 28
when an urgent call from an Iowa lab conveyed bad news to wildlife
officials. Three white-tailed bucks shot in southern Wisconsin
during the November gun deer season tested positive for chronic
wasting disease (CWD).

Now what?

“This is a serious and significant event for Wisconsin,” said
Tom Hauge, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Bureau
of Wildlife Management director.

“I would encourage all readers to start reading up on this
disease. They need to learn about it. We’ve lived a charmed life
here in Wisconsin, for all of the deer that we have, and we’ve had
a disease-free existence up until now. Now we have to start dealing
with the realities of that and we don’t know what those realities
are.

“As much as we’ve talked about CWD, our staff is working to
increase its knowledge of what other states are doing and what we
have to be prepared to do,” he said. “We’re going to try to keep
people as up to speed about it as we can. We want to make sure we
put out good information.”

The DNR, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer
Protection (DATCP) and the Department of Health and Family Services
(DHFS) ran through a flurry of meetings Feb. 29 and March 4 to
begin deciding how to attack this disease threat.

Hauge said the DNR likely will have to shift personnel and money
to the CWD threat. That comes at a time when Gov. Scott McCallum is
looking for ways to cut state spending. On Tuesday, March 5,
McCallum ordered all state travel to cease immediately. It was not
clear at press time how that order would affect CWD efforts;
however the DNR was able to conduct helicopter surveys of Unit 70A
on March 5 and March 6 of last week.

There are a ton of questions. What should the state do first?
How much is this going to cost? What does this mean for farmers?
For hunters? Where did it come from? Can it be eradicated?

As soon as the DNR received the tests results, conservation
wardens interviewed the three hunters who shot the infected bucks.
As it turns out, all three bucks were shot in Unit 70A in the
western Dane County township of Vermont. DNR disease specialist
Kerry Beheler of Madison collected tissue samples from 82 deer at
the nearby Mount Horeb registration station in November of
2001.

“All three were 2- to 3-year-old bucks. Two looked fine, but the
3-year-old was in pretty poor shape,” Beheler said. “When I took
samples from that one, I knew it looked bad, but I didn’t think it
was a CWD deer.”

Of the 82 deer Beheler sampled at the Mount Horeb station, 34
were shot in Unit 70A, so three of 34 deer tested positive for
CWD.

“It may be that it’s a very localized thing,” Beheler said.
“It’s a unique area, geographically speaking. There are rolling
hills, ridges and coulees, so deer do seem to stay pretty
localized.”

Officials said the DNR now will look for ways to sample more
deer in Unit 70A to determine how large of an area may contain deer
infected with CWD. Because there is no known way to test live
animals for CWD, the DNR will have to look for deer carcasses
(they’re starting with road kills and also will test deer killed
this summer under crop damage shooting permits), or send DNR
personnel into the field with rifles to shoot deer for testing.
Plan have not been finalized.

“We can’t draw any conclusions about the prevalence of the
infection, or its distribution, until we get results on the
remaining samples,” said Julia Langenberg, DNR veterinarian. At the
time the Iowa lab found CWD in the three samples, there were still
more samples to be tested. “But three (deer) that close together
suggests the potential that that area is the epicenter of the
infection.”

Where did it come from? No one really knows, and the state may
never know.

“At this stage, I don’t know that we can guarantee that we can
track it down. There is no history of this disease in Wisconsin,”
Hauge said.

“CWD doesn’t jump three states (it’s known to exist in Colorado
and Nebraska) and two major river systems to end up in the town of
Vermont. Something has to be going on,” Beheler added.

“Most people looking at this, and at how far away it is to the
known range of infected wild deer, feel pretty strongly that there
might be human assistance in the disease getting here,” Langenberg
said. “It could be game farms, illegal stocking, or someone
bringing infected deer or elk back from a hunting trip out West,
where they then butchered and disposed of the carcass on their
property.”

Langenberg said DNR and DATCP will be talking to local citizens
and farmers about the disease. She said that although there are no
known cases of infected deer and elk transmitting the disease to
livestock, farmers still will have to protect themselves from the
infected wild population.

Langenberg also said scientists believe it’s not possible for
CWD to be transmitted to humans.

The state will also have to begin talking about how to control
the disease,now that it’s here. In addition to CWD, there is the
threat of bovine tuberculosis (TB) that exists in Michigan. What
does that mean?

“There are many issues that will be considered,” Langenberg
said. “We will be talking once again about deer feeding and baiting
(as a means of) control again on our (the DNR) side. On the farming
industry side? We will likely be talking about double-fencing, but
other issues will be included. Legislators were trying to work
captive wildlife legislation (last) week. Right now, we do not
enough structure (within the captive wildlife industry) to do good
disease management.”

Meanwhile, Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud is calling for the DNR, DATCP
and DHFS to close state borders to all interstate movement of deer
and elk, and to order all feeding of wild deer and elk to
cease.

“It is unknown if CWD is transmissible to humans or domestic
livestock, but we certainly know that our wild deer herd is in
grave danger,” he said. “The presence of CWD is an emergency
situation and state agencies must use their emergency rule-making
power we cannot allow this to get out of control like it is in
other states.”

Neighboring states also are reacting to the news by prohibiting
the shipment of captive deer and elk from Wisconsin game farms into
their states.

Wisconsin has about 250 game farms licensed for elk, sika deer,
fallow deer, or reindeer, and about 550 game farms or shooting
preserves licensed for whitetails.

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