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A hunter's nightmare

May 6, 2002 USA Today by Anita Manning
Last week, Bill Vander Zouwen, a lifelong deer hunter and a state wildlife expert, stood before more than 1,500 people in the Mount Horeb High School in southwest Wisconsin and said that this year, killing deer is going to be one of the hardest things he has had to do.

A progressive brain-wasting disease, once confined to the West, is moving eastward and threatening Wisconsin's vast herds of white-tailed deer. In a desperate effort to curb the disease, wildlife officials are proposing killing all the deer in the region where sick animals have been found. They are calling on hunters, sharpshooters and landowners to join in the mass killing in a grisly call to arms that has even seasoned hunters feeling sick. Today, the state Department of Natural Resources begins issuing special deer harvest licenses.

"Some of us are in denial or depression. Some of us feel grief and even anger," Vander Zouwen says.

"For me, it will really hit me when I sit up on the deer stand I've been at for 20 years and start pulling the trigger. That's not going to be fun. It will be very emotional for me. But I will pull the trigger and I will keep pulling the trigger, because I want this to get back to normal . . . as soon as possible."

Chronic wasting disease, a deadly neurological illness similar to mad cow disease in British cattle, is spreading to parts of the American heartland. While it has affected only a tiny percentage of animals, it is threatening Wisconsin's economy and rocking the foundation of a region where deer hunting is part of the culture.

Caution urged for hunters

The disease is in a family of fatal illnesses called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which cause tiny spongelike holes in the brain. Forms of the disease have been seen in sheep, mink, cats and even in humans, in a rare disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). A variant of CJD, thought to result from eating beef from infected cattle, has killed about 100 people in the U.K. and Europe since the mid-'90s.

In deer and elk, symptoms include behavioral changes and emaciation, then death. It is not known how it passes from animal to animal, though scientists believe animals are somehow ingesting the infectious material, either in saliva or feces. "It certainly is transmissible, but it takes more than nose-to-nose contact," says University of Wyoming researcher Elizabeth Williams, a professor of veterinary science.

She says laboratory tests show no evidence that CWD can be passed to other livestock or to humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. Still, health officials advise hunters not to eat meat from animals known or suspected to be sick, and to take precautions when field-dressing carcasses.

For years, CWD was confined to a small percentage of wild mule deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming and adjacent Nebraska, but it has crept outward and now covers about 16,000 square miles. It also has turned up among farmed deer and elk in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada.

It had not been seen in Wisconsin's state animal, the white-tailed deer, until the end of February. "That's when our world got turned upside down," says TomHauge , director of the bureau of wildlife management. Three of the 82 samples of brain tissue examined at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's lab in Ames, Iowa, were positive for CWD. Since then, 11 more have been found positive, all within 13 miles of each other.

The news has galvanized the state, Hauge says. "White-tailed deer are integral to our lifestyle and culture. It's just part of who we are here in Wisconsin."

Each year, an estimated 700,000 hunters take to the woods, he says, contributing to a $ 1 billion hunting economy that supports conservation and local businesses.

In parts of Colorado where CWD is found, it affects 1% to 15% of deer, mainly mule deer, says the Colorado Division of Wildlife. It is much less common in elk, where less than 1% of wild and captive animals have been infected.

Still, the effect on the elk farming industry has been devastating, farmers say. In Colorado, some elk farmers are giving up and going out of business, receiving payment from the U.S. Agriculture Department to kill all their animals, even on farms where no animals have tested positive for the disease. "It's a pretty sad day for the industry," says Wes Ramage, an elk farmer in Oakfield, Wis., and vice president of the Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmer's Association. "Some people are saying that all this hoopla has had such a destructive effect on the industry."

Wisconsin requires testing of captive elk, and none have tested positive, Ramage says. "We're not afraid for our own animals," he says. "It's just perception and reality. If you hear Wisconsin has CWD in its wild white-tail, you think, 'There goes Wisconsin.' "

Lab shortage affects surveillance

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking toward creating a national surveillance program for CWD, says Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator of the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, but there are a number of hurdles, including a shortage of testing laboratories and the lack of a test to detect the disease in live animals.

In Wisconsin, the massive depopulation effort will put pressure on state and federal veterinary labs, says Julie Langenberg, a veterinarian with the state Department of Natural Resources. "We estimate needing testing on the order of 14,000 to 15,000 deer" this year alone, she says. "We don't currently have that testing capacity, but that is our No. 1 priority."

Another major concern is disposal of all the carcasses. Once tested and found to be CWD-free, the venison could be safely consumed, and some of it might go into a statewide program to provide meat to food pantries, she says. But because it's impossible to test all the animals, untested deer will have to be disposed of, possibly in landfills.

The state is considering restrictions on removing deer from where CWD has been identified, to reduce the risk of transmitting it to other areas of the state, says Vander Zouwen, chief of the DNR wildlife ecology section. No quick solution is expected. Wildlife officials say the depopulation of the hot zone may need to continue as long as five years.

The hunt, unprecedented in size, will be painful, but there is "no choice," says Scott Craven of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "If we don't seize this chance and CWD spreads in Wisconsin, decimates the deer herd or spreads to adjoining states, I believe in five, 10 or 20 years, history will not judge us kindly."

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