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Growing deer

September 1, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Mark Johnson
Both elk were dead -- at least that's what the farmer told the state of Wisconsin in 2000.

The news came as a relief because the elk, purchased by Roger Bowers' farm in Kaukauna, were imported from a Colorado herd infected with chronic wasting disease. The last thing state officials wanted was two live animals, possibly carrying the disease, coming into contact with other animals, or being sold to one of Wisconsin's 946 other game farms.

But just 10 days ago, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection received some shocking news: The farmer said he had been mistaken two years ago. One of the two at-risk elk was still alive and very much a part of his 150-elk herd. Bowers has since isolated the elk. But its presence is a chilling example of the difficulty regulators have had policing the movement of captive deer and elk into and around the state. Such gaps in oversight come at a time when critics fear the deer and elk trade is helping spread chronic wasting disease, and may be the reason the disease jumped hundreds of miles -- and the Mississippi River -- to infect wild deer in Wisconsin.

"I think it probably moved by truck," said Bruce Chesebro, head of the laboratory of persistent viral diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Concern over the movement of deer and elk intensified Friday as officials announced the discovery of Minnesota's first case of chronic wasting disease on an elk farm. A 5-year-old male elk on the farm in eastern Minnesota tested positive for the deadly neurological disease after dying mysteriously in mid-August.

While the disease has yet to appear on a single deer or elk farm in Wisconsin, fewer than 20% of the farms here have been testing for it. And a broad examination of the deer and elk trade shows why it has caught the attention of state investigators seeking to learn how the disease got here:

-- The industry has exploded in the last six years, bringing 3,000 deer and elk into Wisconsin, many from places such as Colorado, Nebraska and Saskatchewan that already have the disease. At the same time, Wisconsin elk and deer farmers actively have been buying and selling animals among themselves. Since 1997, more than 900 elk and deer have moved from farm to farm within the state.

-- The elk trade has already demonstrated a proficiency for spreading chronic wasting disease from farm to farm, as infected animals join new herds. An outbreak that started in a Colorado elk farm ultimately infected 12 herds in three states. An outbreak in Saskatchewan reached 41 herds, including one in Alberta. In Saskatchewan, chronic wasting disease later turned up in a wild deer found within 20 miles of the farm where the outbreak began, though authorities have not determined whether the infection somehow jumped from the farm to the wild.

-- Although most of the trade is aboveboard, some is illicit. And record keeping can be shoddy.

-- At least 20 of the animals imported to Wisconsin came from diseased herds. And that doesn't count illicit animal shipments.

"We suspect that there are lots of deer that have been moved improperly," said Thomas C. Solin, chief of special investigations for the state Department of Natural Resources. "The whole system is based in the proper filing of paperwork. You can have all of the paperwork you want on the honest people, but they are not the people you are worried about."

Elk and deer farmers say their industry is being made a scapegoat, especially by wildlife supporters who oppose the notion of farming animals they believe are best left in the wild.

Henry Kriegel, a consultant for the North American Elk Breeders Association, said critics have used chronic wasting disease "as a battering ram" against elk ranchers.

"We weren't the ones who started the disease. The disease happened to us," said West Bend elk farmer Diana Susen, citing reports that the disease first appeared in animal research pens in Colorado during the mid-1960s.

Others also have leaped to the industry's defense, disputing any suggestion that one of Wisconsin's deer and elk farms might have inadvertently imported chronic wasting disease.

"Personally, I don't think they play any role," said state Agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf. "We have never had any positive CWD come out of one of those farms."

There is no question there are other potential culprits.

Reports have surfaced of unnamed landowners using feed that may have contained deer bone meal tainted by the infectious agent suspected of causing CWD. That theory has particular resonance because tainted cow bone meal is a suspected source of mad cow disease, a fatal disorder that is closely related to CWD.

Another possibility is that a hunter might have brought a diseased carcass from another state into Wisconsin's endemic zone and dumped the remains near wild deer.

Finally, the disease may have been here for years as the result of a genetic mutation, afflicting a single Wisconsin deer and then spread to other animals.

Terry Spraker, a Colorado State University wildlife pathologist who has studied chronic wasting disease for 25 years, said there may not be a single "smoking gun" explanation for how the disease reached Wisconsin.

"I'll bet there's a whole lot of factors," he said.

Poor record keeping

The growth of deer and elk farming has been breathtaking.

The U.S. farmed elk population rose 50% in just four years, reaching 135,000 in 2001. In the last decade, the nation's farmed deer herd has jumped tenfold to more than 500,000 animals worth well in excess of $1 billion, according to figures from the North American Deer Farmers Association.

Deer and elk farmers raise the animals for meat, breeding stock and velvet antlers, which are used in a dietary supplement.

Wisconsin is one of the leading states in the industry, home to more than 35,000 captive deer and elk. Tracking the whereabouts of every animal has challenged state regulators, especially in light of the record-keeping practices of some farmers.

Earlier this year when department of agriculture investigators revisited a Waupaca farmer who received 11 elk originating from an infected Colorado ranch, they concluded his records were "virtually non-existent," and placed his entire herd under quarantine.

DNR investigators also have found examples in which game farmers falsified records.

In one case, the department subpoenaed the bank records of a deer farmer in the state's eradication zone who was raising animals without a license. The state is unsure just how many animals the farmer had or how many he has bought and sold.

Across the United States, the interstate elk and deer trade has plummeted recently as officials frantically try to stop the spread of the disease. Wisconsin shut down the importation of all cervid animals in April.

With a dense white-tailed deer population to protect as well as a major dairy industry, Wisconsin officials had ample reason to be concerned about the trade. A related disorder in cattle, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, caused U.S. officials to stop all shipments of British cattle in the late 1980s. That was six years before health officials discovered that eating infected beef also caused a fatal brain disease in people known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Wisconsin agricultural department officials had an opportunity to take action in 1998 when staffers at the Wisconsin DNR warned that restrictions on interstate deer trade were needed to prevent the spread of CWD to Wisconsin.

But the agriculture department rejected the recommendation.

"We said, 'This has to stop. You have to put controls on importation,' " said former DNR Secretary George Meyer. "They balked at doing that."

In 2000, Wisconsin officials had another incentive to act when laboratory research by the National Institutes of Health showed it was possible the infectious agent suspected of causing CWD could infect both people and cattle.

So far, there have been no documented cases of either happening. In fact, experiments involving cows raised near CWD-infected deer have yet to find the disease spreading to cattle. But subsequent developments, including the Creutzfeldt-Jakob deaths of several people who consumed wild deer or elk and follow-up studies suggesting a potential vulnerability of cattle, have raised additional red flags.

Movement seems key

In the last five years -- before states clamped down on the trade -- nearly 500 live elk from CWD-infected herds in Colorado and Canada were transported to ranches in 21 states, including Wisconsin, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records.

Lynn Creekmore, CWD@aphis.usda.gov, a USDA staff veterinarian, has tracked the movement of the disease. She said she prefers not to speculate on how the disease infects wild herds, but it is pretty clear how it has spread among captive herds.

"We know the spread in farmed animals has to do with animal movement," she said. "We don't think (tainted) feed is part of the scenario."

If the deer and elk industry did bring chronic wasting disease to a Wisconsin farm, how might it have jumped into the wild?

An escaped animal is one possibility.

There have been 24 documented escapes from Wisconsin deer farms and probably a greater number that have gone unreported, according to DNR officials. While state law requires fences at least 7 feet 10 inches high, both elk and deer have been known to clear that height.

Not all deer farmers tag their animals, and when an untagged deer leaps to freedom, "it's just another deer out in the landscape," said the DNR's Solin.

Several of the known escapes have occurred in or near the eradication zone southwest of Madison, where the state hopes to kill 25,000 deer this fall in an effort to wipe out the disease.

The one deer escape closest to the eradication zone came from a game farm owned by Richard Peck of Spring Green. Records show that the 1-year-old doe escaped on Aug. 15, 1999. Peck said a bowhunter killed the deer on Dec. 29 of that year.

The deer was not tested for chronic wasting disease.

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