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DNR launches offensive on chronic wasting disease;
Hunters begin shooting deer so that testing can begin

March 16, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg Jones
Dodgeville -- Maps hang on the wall and on easels, pins are pushed into maps -- green for areas where permits have been issued and red for spots where deer have been shot.

Phones ring constantly. Laptops hum. Workers cradle cell phones while quickly jotting down addresses and plat map markings. The Department of Natural Resources is calling it a command center, but it looks more like a war room.

This is the heart of Wisconsin's response to three wild bucks that tested positive for deadly chronic wasting disease. On Friday, the first several deer shot by landowners within a 10-mile circle of the area where the infected deer were killed last November began flooding into the DNR headquarters here.

Teams of wildlife technicians fanned out across a 416-square mile zone to pick up deer shot by landowners who received special permits. As of early Friday, 235 permits had been issued to landowners or hunters designated by landowners. More landowners were calling to see if they could get permits.

The permits last for only three days, which illustrates just how worried state officials are. The DNR wants the heads of 500 deer sent to an Iowa lab as quickly as possible to see whether the disease has spread to many more wild deer in this part of the state.

"This disease is not for sissies. It's a serious problem," said Sarah Shapiro Hurley, a DNR veterinarian. "There are a lot of public health concerns because (chronic wasting disease is similar) to mad cow disease."

A team effort

The DNR has called in 22 veterinarians, wildlife biologists and other employees from around the state to work two shifts each day out of the DNR station in Dodgeville, not far from the epicenter in Wildlife Management Unit 70A.

"It's fairly chaotic with all the phone calls coming in," said Carl Batha, a DNR wildlife biologist and chief of operations for the chronic wasting disease survey.

Today and Sunday will be key since that's when wildlife officials are hoping a large number of hunters will be able to harvest deer.

"There certainly hasn't been a problem with getting enough landowners" to volunteer for the job, said Batha.

The clock is also ticking because the spring turkey season -- when lots of camouflaged hunters will head into the woods -- begins in mid-April and does will begin to deliver the first fawns by the end of next month.

There's no evidence chronic wasting disease affects humans nor that it can infect other species aside from elk and deer. [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator] However, experts originally thought mad cow disease couldn't be transmitted to humans.

"We don't want to make the same mistake as Great Britain, who said to people -- 'Go home and eat your head cheese, everything is fine' -- only to find out a few years later" that it wasn't fine, Hurley said.

A tedious process

At Blue Mounds State Park on Friday morning, DNR wildlife technicians Karl Kramer and Randy George scurried to pick up and process deer. After landowners called for pickups, Kramer used a global positioning system unit to record the spots where the deer were killed, then loaded the dead animals into a trailer to bring them back to a ranger station at the park.

Wearing rubber gloves, George used a bar to force open the mouth of one of the animals, then slit open the jaw to look at the teeth and determine its age.

"This one looks like a 2-year-old," said George, as Kramer wrote down the information on his clipboard. George then used a bow saw to cut off the head, which he placed in two plastic bags before dragging the carcass to a large trash receptacle.

The landowners who shot the deer are "concerned and rightly so," Kramer said. "So are we. We want to know where it came from and how far it's spread."

Still many unknowns

Since the Wisconsin DNR learned of the infected bucks late last month, officials have conducted aerial surveys to gauge the number of whitetail deer in a 10-mile radius of the epicenter. They've figured out how many deer -- 500 -- must be killed for an accurate picture of how pervasive the disease may be.

What they don't know is how many wild whitetail deer could be infected with chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin but estimate it could be 3 1/2% to 4% of the herd within the 10-mile radius near Mount Horeb.

With an estimated population of 20,000 whitetails in this area, that's 700 to 800 deer. But since adult bucks can travel up to 10 miles, officials may discover infected deer several miles in any or all directions from the epicenter. That would require more deer to be killed and tested.

Just what happens once test results come back, in four to five weeks, is unknown, said Hurley and Batha.

Authorities in other states where chronic wasting disease has been found, such as Colorado and Wyoming, have tried eradicating the herd in a specific area, then using chemicals to try to disinfect the area before bringing in healthy deer. But Hurley said the healthy animals still ended up getting infected.

"It doesn't bode well. Even if we were going to do a scorched earth effort, we don't know that we could eradicate (the disease) because deer would come back into the area," said Hurley.

Landowners can keep the carcasses, though on Friday most were choosing not to. The remaining carcasses will be put in a capped landfill in Madison. Other states get rid of the animal carcasses by incinerating them, using napalm in some instances, or putting them in a hazardous waste machine that chops up the carcasses.

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