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Game farm owners, ranchers share deer illness concerns

March 10, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg Jones
Wausau -- No one knows how three Wisconsin white-tailed deer contracted a deadly disease similar to mad cow disease, but game farm owners and deer ranchers are worried authorities will take steps to restrict their businesses.

As state officials quickly moved to contain the disease, elk and deer ranchers, who gathered here for their annual meeting Saturday, wondered how the news that chronic wasting disease was found in wild white-tailed deer will affect their industry.

"There's no evidence it came from a game farm. Nobody can say where it came from," said Sam Vainisi, a veterinarian from Denmark, Wis., who raises red deer. Jim Pankow, an elk farmer from Plymouth, said captive deer farmers and elk ranchers also are concerned that the wild population could somehow infect animals at game farms.

"That's why we can't have a knee-jerk reaction to this," said Pankow, vice president of the Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmers Association. Pankow said authorities must work methodically to find the source of the infection and contain the disease.

Vainisi compared it to the discovery of bovine tuberculosis in elk herds in Manitowoc County in 1996.

"It was addressed, it was cleaned up. That's what we'll do in this case," he said.

Chronic wasting disease attacks the brains of infected deer and elk. There's no evidence that it can infect humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. However, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource cautioned hunters not to eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, tonsils, spleen or lymph nodes of white-tailed deer and elk because the infectious part of chronic wasting disease concentrates in those tissues.

There are roughly 500 licensed captive white-tail deer herds in Wisconsin, numbering about 17,000 animals. While only three bucks killed during the November gun-deer season have tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the DNR announced this week that 500 white-tailed deer will be shot and tested in the area where the infected deer were discovered -- western Dane County and eastern Iowa County.

Wisconsin has had a voluntary program to test for chronic wasting disease among captive elk with 47 ranchers testing their animals. The test of brain tissue can only be done on dead animals, although researchers are working on a test that would not kill animals, said Glen Zebarth, a veterinarian from Alexandria, Minn., and a member of the Elk Research Council.

There's one captive whitetail and elk herd within a 10-mile radius of the Mount Horeb area where the three infected bucks were shot last fall, Pankow said. That herd appears to be healthy, but it's under quarantine, which means no animals can leave or join the herd.

"There's nothing to indicate at this time that it came from that herd," Pankow said.

Ray Hanson has raised elk and white-tailed deer in Chetek for 15 years, and he's not worried about chronic wasting disease, which has afflicted deer herds in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska for decades.

"It's a normal disease for that species -- like heart attacks or liver disease in humans," said Hanson, who raises 140 to 160 white-tailed deer and 80 elk. "We'll try our best to control it. If there's a cure, we'll find it."

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