Wisconsin’s Washburn County: Six years with no new CWD cases

When it comes to chronic wasting disease (CWD), there hasn’t been any good news lately – with one possible exception. In the six years of testing since the disease was discovered in Washburn County wild deer, no more deer have tested positive in the four-county area impacted by the discovery.

DNR wildlife biologist Nancy Christel and wildlife technician Jake Didier offered to take the lymph nodes from the bucks my son and I shot over gun season.

“Sure, we want to get as many samples from that area as we can, especially from mature bucks,” said Christel. “They have the highest infection rate and are good ones to sample.”

The curbside service was appreciated since I wanted to make a European mount and needed the head intact for that.

“We’ve been trying hard to get as many samples as we can around the area where the diseased deer was found, but have expanded our area to include portions of Polk, Barren and Burnett counties, too, since they fell within the impacted zone,” said Christel.

She recalled the day she learned of the first CWD-positive deer in Washburn County.

“The deer was found on the opening day of the 2011 gun season by Little Long Lake just west of Shell Lake. It was lying along the driveway to a residence and the owner thought it was an injured deer when he called in. A sheriff’s deputy responded to the call and put the deer down.

“There was no visible gunshot wound, so according to protocol I took the head, attached the numbered medallion to it, filled out the required paperwork and submitted it for sampling. The deer was thin, but the quality of the sample was good,” said Christel.

One issue around the sample was the time lag from when the sample was discovered and the positive results came back. Christel explained how that happened.

“Since we’re so far from any previously known CWD positive area, I didn’t have any undue cause for alarm about the deer. We’d tested sick deer before that didn’t have CWD, so at the time I wasn’t concerned over the time lag between my submitting the head and the return of the results,” said Christel. “The deer head ended up in the wrong freezer prior testing, which was unfortunate and led to delayed testing, but it was the correct deer, the medallion was still attached to it,” added Christel.

In April 2012 though, life and job responsibilities changed for Christel and other DNR wildlife staff when news of the CWD-positive came back to the DNR’s Northern Region office in Spooner.

“I found out about the CWD-positive result the day after I attended the annual Washburn County spring deer status meeting and had told those attending that meeting about the good health of our deer herd. I felt bad about that, too. I’d just come back to the office after trapping and collaring elk all day and found (Northern Region wildlife supervisor) Mike Zeckmeister waiting for me. He took me into my office where I saw my phone blinking with messages, then he broke the news to me,” said Christel. “I was dumbfounded. I’d sent in many samples before and none had come back positive, nor did I expect any since we were so far away from areas where the disease had been found.”

The discovery changed Christel’s workload immensely. A plan had to be developed to address the discovery and determine its impact on the local herd. With this goal in mind, DNR staff and several local citizens met at the Spooner office to discuss what steps should be taken. The end result of this meeting was the creation of the CWD Citizen Advisory Team (CAT).

“The establishment of the CAT was one of the best steps we took. I really appreciated having the input of the long-time residents who brought so much to the table. They weren’t just avid deer hunters, they understood the importance of deer to the area. They also knew their neighbors and the best road boundaries for the issuance of landowner permits to get more samples from the core area,” said Christel.

“There’s no question the CAT enabled us to make better decisions on how to manage the discovery and assured us the public would be willing to participate in the testing process. They paved the way to get our message to the public. Right now CAT members wonder if their service is still needed since we haven’t found anymore positives, but it’s reassuring they’re there if we need them,” she said.

Immediately after the discovery, steps were taken to get as many samples as possible within two miles of the where the infected deer was found. Appointments for sampling were made at DNR offices, car-killed deer were picked up for testing, landowner permits were issued, and taxidermists were asked to assist in sample collection. Kiosks were also set up at businesses complete with freezers so hunters could drop off deer heads.

In the last two years, about 1,000 deer have been tested from the impacted area.

“Since we need to be cost effective in the manner we’re collecting samples, hunters have been a good source for us. We’ve been trying hard to persuade them to get the deer they harvest tested and it seems to be working. It doesn’t cost them anything and they get the insurance they’re eating healthy venison. We also get important information and the more of that we get, the more we know,” said Christel. “People seem to be genuinely interested in the process and have been very cooperative.”

Zeckmeister is also complimentary of the work being done by the Spooner DNR wildlife team.

“They’re a bunch of over-achievers,” he said. “I say this to their face and commend them for their work often. They take their job of collecting samples seriously and in doing it right by always looking for ways to improve by getting more samples in the most efficient manner possible. They put a high value on monies coming from licenses sportsmen and women buy. Nancy’s leadership and high energy is contagious and has rubbed off on our staff in Barron, Polk, and Burnett counties to help work as a team to broaden our CWD sampling effort.”

Christel was cautious when asked what six years of no new positive tests in the area means.

“I’m not ready to declare victory. I haven’t seen the results from this year’s tests yet either and I was surprised once already six years ago.”

The disease isn’t wide spread in northwest Wisconsin and the local wildlife staff, with help from the CWD Citizen Advisory Team, are doing all they can to continue this winning streak.

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