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Fears rise over chronic wasting's impact

April 21, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Bob Riepenhoff
It's hard to overestimate the potential impact of chronic wasting disease on Wisconsin deer hunting.

"I think this disease has changed deer hunting, as we know it, forever," Rep. Scott Gunderson told me.

He called the disease "the most serious threat that has ever faced the deep-rooted tradition of deer hunting in Wisconsin."

Gunderson (R-Town of Norway) is chairman of an Assembly Subcommittee that is looking into deer and deer management in Wisconsin. Before Feb. 28, when chronic wasting disease was found in whitetail deer near Mount Horeb in Dane County, Gunderson's subcommittee had already held public hearings in La Crosse, Rhinelander, Green Bay and Wind Lake.

At those hearings, Gunderson said, the major issues that emerged included distrust of Department of Natural Resources deer population estimates; a willingness to accept a 16-day gun deer season, as long as the Zone T hunts were eliminated; and a desire to stop baiting and feeding of deer.

Important as those issues are, they now pale in comparison to the specter of chronic wasting disease.

"People are scared," said Gunderson, who operates Gundy's Sport, a sporting goods store in Wind Lake. "I've had people tell me they're throwing out their venison from last year."

State officials say there is no evidence that the disease can cause human infection. [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator] At the same time, they recommend against consuming meat from any deer known to be infected with chronic wasting disease, and against eating tissue from the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils or lymph nodes of any deer.

"All that meat donated to the food pantries (by hunters last fall) has been thrown out," Gunderson said. "They don't want to take a chance of giving that to people."

Gunderson fears that concerns about venison will make a large number of people quit deer hunting this year. If that happens, the economic impact would be devastating.

"This is a huge deal, when we take a look at this economically," he said. "If we lost a quarter of the deer hunters, we'd lose $4 million that goes into the Fish and Wildlife account, just from license sales. Who knows what the impact will be on sales of guns, equipment and clothing, and on hotels, restaurants and gas stations?"

Containing infected deer

Landowners and sharpshooters have reached their goal of shooting 500 deer from the Mount Horeb area for testing. As of Thursday, tests were completed on 439 deer, and there were 13 confirmed cases of deer infected with chronic wasting disease.

"Somehow the DNR has to contain the area that has the disease," Gunderson said. "We may have to go in and kill all those deer."

Since prions, the proteins that cause the disease, can withstand extremely high temperatures, disposal of infected deer carcasses poses another problem.

"You can't just throw the bones in a pile -- the prions seem to live forever," Gunderson said. "We don't have a source to incinerate in this state. We may have to put something together to be able to do that."

Confidence in the DNR

Despite the magnitude of the problem, Gunderson has confidence in the DNR.

"A lot of people have been critical that they haven't done enough," he said. "I think we just have to let them do their work. I'm confident that they're going to get a handle on this."

He continued: "The biggest thing is for people not to panic or jump to conclusions. Let the agency do its work and get us the correct information."

Meanwhile, Gunderson is calling on people across the state to stop feeding deer.

"There is no doubt that high concentrations of deer, or deer feeding off the same pile, nose to nose -- that's how this disease is spread," he said.

He also said the DNR should start testing road-killed deer statewide for the disease.

"I think we should bring those heads in for testing," he said. "If we find the deer have spread out of that 11-mile (Mount Horeb area) radius, they have to continue to test until they find the end of it."

Gunderson also suggests that hunters consider learning to butcher their own venison.

"If you take care of your deer, properly, and you don't cut into the bone, it doesn't look like, scientifically, you can get the disease," he said. [What about the evidence that CWD prions can igrow in muscle (meat)--BSE coordinator]

The public is invited to voice questions about the disease at the Assembly Subcommittee on Deer and Deer Management's hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday, April 25, at the state capitol building in Madison.

After that, let's hope for some answers real soon.

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