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Game farm tests would involve 35,000 animals, official says

May 22, 2002 Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist
Wisconsin would have to spend $9 million and kill at least 35,000 deer and elk - nearly all of the animals raised on farms today - to get a valid sample that would test for the presence of chronic wasting disease, a state official said.

Responding to criticism that his agency has not responded fast enough, state Agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf said the department was doing all it could to fight the fatal disease.

Harsdorf issued documents and a news release that responded, among other things, to calls for random testing of the state's captive deer and elk herd.

As officials try to determine the source of the disease in wild deer that was first discovered in February near Mount Horeb in Dane County, one possible explanation is captive deer or elk herds.

The disease has prompted the state Department of Natural Resources to initiate plans to kill nearly all deer within a 361-square-mile area near Mount Horeb and wipe out half of the deer population in 10 surrounding counties.

On a separate front, the agriculture department said a small captive deer farm with 24 deer that is located close to where 18 deer have tested positive for the disease has been placed in quarantine. So far, two of the deer have been killed and found not to have the disease.

As for the mandatory testing, Harsdorf noted that no deer or elk from farms had tested positive for the disease in Wisconsin. So far, 330 of 10,800 elk have been tested. Figures on farm-raised deer were not available.

New administrative rules require testing for any elk or deer that die on a farm. Also, the new rules effectively ban the shipment of animals into the state.

Harsdorf said captive deer and elk herds are often small and so widespread in the state that a valid sample would require 35,000 animals to be killed and tested. There is no live test for the disease. In addition to paying farmers $9 million, the farmers would lose an additional $3 million, he said.

Currently, the agriculture department does not have the authority to order suspected animals to be killed and tested. The agency asked for such power when the Legislature approved a $4 million funding program to fight the disease last week, but lawmakers removed the provision.

But John Stauber of Madison, co-author of "Mad Cow U.S.A." and a critic of the agency's handling of the disease, said the agriculture department was still not doing enough.

"I think that they need to extensively test all farmed elk and deer in the state," Stauber said. "If that means spending $9 million and putting down 35,000 animals to do it, that will be money well spent in the long run."

In Stauber's view, "deer and elk (farms) have unwittingly spread CWD," and thus far the agriculture department has been too lenient and protective of the farm-raised deer and elk industry.

In a related development Wednesday night, some Wisconsin deer and elk farmers said the emergency rules put in place by the agriculture department would put them out of business.

Speaking at a public hearing in Madison on the department's rules, farmer Guyland Van Asten said the state was overreacting to the hysteria over the disease.

"The government can take my herd and make it worth zero because we have a hot new disease. A hot new disease that Colorado has had for years," said Van Asten, who raises deer in Larsen.

Other deer farmers at the meeting, which attracted about 50 people, said the disease had not been detected in any deer raised on the state's nearly 600 game farms. They expressed frustration at being blamed for a health problem that to date exists only among wild deer in Wisconsin.

Jerry Gundlach, who did not testify, does not believe that the emergency rules will restore the public's confidence in the safety of farm-raised venison.

Gundlach, who has about 175 deer on property he owns just south of Madison, said it would take years of testing to change the public's attitude.

Journal Sentinel correspondent Kevin Murphy, reporting from Madison, contributed to this report.

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