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Wisconsin overreacts to CWD


December 22, 2002 San Antonio Express-News by Ron Henry Strait

Most Texas deer hunters are aware of chronic wasting disease and the potential damage that CWD poses to the state's white-tailed deer herd.

That potential damage, however, is not limited to Texas or even to the deer themselves.

In Wisconsin, for instance, common sense seems to have been the first casualty in that state's war on CWD.

CWD, known formally as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, is a prion-based malady that affects the brains of a class of animals called cervids. The cervid family includes mule deer and elk as well as white-tailed deer, North America's most popular and widely hunted big-game animal. Texas has about 4 million white-tailed deer, but, as far as biologists can tell, not one of them has CWD.

The plan is to keep it that way.

In preparation for the day that CWD might be discovered in Texas, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Texas Animal Health Commission have developed a set of protocols designed as an orderly response.

In the interim, TP&W has trained field staffers to test deer. So far, brain tissue samples from more than 120 Texas deer have been tested. Another 30 samples have been sent to a Panhandle lab for analysis.

All the deer tested so far have been clinical cases, said Jerry Cooke, TP&W's branch chief for game mammals. That is, the deer were obviously sick and were killed, rather than the agency killing random deer as a sample method.

"A lot of those deer came from along the (Balcones) escarpment," Cooke said. "We tested the deer for everything, not just CWD. Mostly, they had blue tongue, a very common viral disease."

The testing program is part of the TP&W-THC response to the CWD threat, and it obviously is measured and reasonable. But having time to design and develop protocols and a pre-emptory plan is a luxury.

Consider how Wisconsin reacted after one CWD infected deer was found in that state's wild herd in February. (Since that time, more than three dozen Wisconsin deer have been diagnosed with CWD.)

The state game department established a 255,000-acre "eradication zone" west of Madison and asked hunters and land owners to kill every deer in the zone - every deer , all of the estimated 25,000 bucks, does, yearlings and fawns.

Once those deer are gone, according to the Wisconsin plan, the huge eradication zone will be kept "deer free" for five years.

Sound impossible?

Well, on top of that plan, about 70,000 additional whitetails will be killed in the counties surrounding the zone.

Biologists, presumably, will then take and test brain tissue samples from the 95,000 deer before the carcasses are hauled to a dump for disposal.

A lot of Midwest hunters and landowners see Wisconsin's scorched earth CWD policy as not only an over-reaction by state policymakers but as a totally impractical plan, too.

As Madison area veterinarian John Barnes told USA Today last month, "You cannot shoot your way out of a disease."

Even if you could, the Wisconsin remedy implies that every deer in a very large area could be found in the first place. In Central Texas terms, imagine trying to locate and then kill every deer in Kendall, Comal and Bandera counties.

It can't be done, but, according to professional biologists in Texas, it appears that Wisconsin's over-reaction to CWD will not be reversed.

Thankfully, Texas is doing things differently.

In the long run, the best response to CWD is an educated response.

Toward that end, wildlife biologists, science teachers and anyone interested in CWD, its history, status and potential impact on hunting, the hunting culture and the broader general population should get a copy of "Deadly Game, Chronic Wasting Disease," produced by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The five-part, 20-page, full-size newspaper special edition includes work by six staff reporters, three graphics specialists, a designer and five editors.

The report examines the obvious - CWD's role in hunting and the hunting culture - and the obscure - how similar diseases such as mad cow disease have played out on the human scene.

Reprints of "Deadly Game" are $4, including tax and handling. Contact the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, News Information Center, CWD Series, P.O. Box 661, Milwaukee, Wis., 53201-0661.

Rutting update: Pastures south of Highway 90 and west of Interstate 37 have suddenly come to life with rutting whitetails.

Richard Bennett, who has a ranch near Batesville, called Friday afternoon to say the deer on his property turned Thursday and he's seeing deer he didn't know he had.

"We've had a staggered rut until then," Bennett said. "But now the big bucks are starting to show."

Bennett does regular helicopter surveys of his property, but "I've seen six or seven deer the last two days that are in the 160 class."

The rattling action has suddenly picked up, too.

"When we rattled, we'd get five or six bucks to come in at once," he said. "There would be a couple of good ones, and the rest would be young bucks or small bucks."

Bennett was fearing that the rut might kick in just as the full moon filled the night sky and send most of the activity to late hours.

"The moon is making no difference," he said. "The way it is right now, you can hunt all day. I think from looking at them, this could be a lot better (antler) year than we all thought."

If the peak of the rut plays out as usual, the heaviest activity will be over by Tuesday, "Then it's back to stop and start with the bucks."

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