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Funding is next front for DNR's deer battle

October 13, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Bob Riepenhoff
State lawmakers released another $2 million last week to battle chronic wasting disease, but told wildlife officials to come up with a plan to offer affordable disease tests to hunters.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell told members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee that the agency would be back in the next few weeks to seek another $2.9 million to combat the deadly brain disease that threatens Wisconsin's whitetail deer.

"We've taken every nickel and dime we could find to deal with CWD," Bazzell told the committee.

The committee approved the $2 million, but required the DNR to come up with a proposal for providing optional tests to ease hunters' concerns about venison before receiving any future funding. However, the panel did not require the state to make such tests available. "If we can't reassure the million men and women who hunt deer in Wisconsin that the venison they pursue this fall is safe, we will lose our ability to control the size of this deer herd," said Sen. Kevin Shibilski (D-Stevens Point).

License sales down

Deer hunting license sales are down an average of 22% compared to this time last year.

Bazzell told the committee that the state lacks the capacity to provide on-demand tests for hunters, largely because it is planning to perform 50,000 surveillance tests statewide. The DNR's plan calls for testing 500 deer in every county. Hunters are being encouraged to keep their venison frozen until they get test results that will show whether the disease is present in the area where they hunt.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) introduced legislation that would require federal authorities to remove barriers that have prevented private labs from getting government approval to conduct testing for the disease. The lawmakers said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has moved too slowly in helping states like Wisconsin deal with the disease.

Also last week, because of similarities between chronic wasting disease and mad cow disease, the Medical Society of Milwaukee County urged the state to adopt the same regulations for deer processing that the English have imposed on the British beef industry.

"I don't think that it is unreasonable, in a state that regulates hairdressers and virtually all aspects of the food industry, to regulate deer processing," said G. Richard Olds, an infectious disease expert and chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

While meat plants that perform venison processing during the deer season must follow state regulations, a vast sub-economy of unregulated entrepreneurs has butchered deer for hunters for generations.

Olds is also chairman of the society's Public Health Committee, whose recommendations were supported by the group's board of directors. The group, which is pressing its recommendations with the Medical Society of Wisconsin, also questioned whether meat processors should be allowed to butcher venison in the same locations where they process other meat.

State regulations permit meat processors to use the same facilities to butcher venison and other meat, but not at the same time and only after the facilities have been cleaned.

Cautions issued

Although there is no scientific evidence that chronic wasting disease can transmit to humans, the World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer known to be infected with the disease or the brain, spinal cord, spleen, eyes, tonsil or lymph nodes of any deer. The Medical Society also urges that none of those tissues, where prions have been found in infected deer, be used in the making deer sausage.

Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in the Mount Horeb area, where 31 cases of infected wild deer have been confirmed. In addition, one captive deer from a game farm in Portage Copunty has also tested positive for the disease.

The DNR wants to try and kill all deer -- about 25,000 animals -- in a 389-square-mile area in parts of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties where the disease has been found, and another 71,000 deer in the surrounding 10-county region.

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