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Fatal deer disorder may be spreading

September 20, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by John Fauber and Meg 
Jones jfauber@journalsentinel.com
A white-tailed buck shot on a game farm in Portage County has tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the first time the fatal brain disorder has been found in Wisconsin outside the original outbreak area southwest of Madison.

The Department of Natural Resources said it would step up testing of the wild white-tailed deer population near the game farm and in Walworth County, where the deer was purchased.

Authorities already had planned to test 500 deer in Portage County during this fall's gun deer season as part of a plan to check for the disease in every county. Now, the department may immediately start checking animals from the area killed by bow hunters and in traffic accidents. Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials said they were notified late Wednesday that one of two white-tailed deer killed Sept. 4 by a hunter who paid to hunt on the enclosed preserve had tested positive.

This is believed to be the first captive white-tailed deer that has tested positive for chronic wasting disease in the nation. Until now, the only infected captive animals have been elk, with the exception of some wild deer put in a pen in Nebraska a few years ago that later turned out to be infected.

Wisconsin State Veterinarian Clarence Siroky said investigators were trying to determine the age of the buck and find out whether the hunter processed it into venison. DNR and agriculture officials also are trying to piece together the movement of the sick deer to assess how many other animals might have come in contact with it.

Agriculture officials have quarantined both the Portage County and Walworth County game farms. The officials would not identify them.

Eventually, all of the animals on both farms could be killed, Siroky said. At the very least, the owners of the farms will not be allowed to move any animals for a minimum of five years, he said.

Siroky said the Portage County farm has about 40 animals confined to a breeding area and an unknown number of deer on more than 100 acres that make up a game preserve. Hunters pay fees of up to several thousand dollars to shoot animals on captive preserves, Siroky said.

It was not known how many animals were on the Walworth County farm.

Part of the decision on whether to kill all of the animals on both farms will depend on obtaining money to compensate the farmers. That money may come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. He said the maximum compensation was $1,500 an animal.

Veterinarian not surprised

Siroky said he was not surprised to learn of the positive test from a captive herd.

"White-tail deer, regardless of what side of the fence it's on, is susceptible to CWD," Siroky said. "As a vet, I'm never surprised, because all you need is exposure and opportunity."

The discovery likely will cast even more suspicion on the captive deer and elk industry.

Ever since the discovery of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's wild white-tailed deer population near Mount Horeb in February, game farms have come under suspicion as a possible way the disease got into the state.

With more than 35,000 animals and 946 game farms, Wisconsin is one of the leading states in the captive deer and elk industry. In just the last six years, 3,000 deer and elk have come into the state, 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. Most of the in-state trade has been bucks sold to hunting preserves.

Deer and elk farmers and Wisconsin agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf have argued that the industry has been unfairly criticized and that there had never been a positive test on a Wisconsin game farm. But as of last month, fewer than 20% of the farms here had been testing for the disease.

"Obviously, I'm concerned and always have been about CWD in the state in any form," said Gary Nelson, president of Whitetails of Wisconsin, an organization of deer farmers. "Under any circumstances, it's not good news for anybody."

Nelson has about 1,000 white-tailed deer on his Marinette County farm.

"I'm sure that some people will jump on it and suggest 'I told you so,' but really we don't know what has happened," Nelson said. "It's just as possible CWD can move from the wild to the captive herds."

Tom Hauge, DNR wildlife director and chronic wasting disease program leader, said he hoped the positive test in Portage County would prompt more deer and elk farmers to sign up for Wisconsin's monitoring program. The program is voluntary, but in order for deer and elk farmers to sell or move any animal that is at least 16 months old -- dead or alive -- they must be enrolled in the program.

"We need a good chronic-wasting disease monitoring program for both the wild herd and the farm-raised," Hauge said. "You can't protect one without the other. We're joined at the hip."

Spreading to new herds

In recent years, the captive elk industry demonstrated a proficiency for spreading chronic wasting disease from farm to farm, as infected animals joined 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.

Although most of the game farm trade is above board, some is illicit, officials say. Record keeping can be shoddy.

A USDA investigation of game farm animals this year identified 500 with the disease, all of them elk. At least 20 of those animals were imported to Wisconsin and had come from diseased herds. Some have since died; the rest are being monitored.

Last month, officials in Minnesota announced that chronic wasting disease had been found for the first time in that state when a 5-year-old elk on a farm in the eastern part of the state tested positive for the disease.

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