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Dairy state's whitetail deer herd threatened by wasting disease

March 24, 2002 Associated Press by Robert Imrie
One by one, landowners are shooting whitetail deer in an unprecedented hunt so the animals can be tested to see how far a fatal brain disease has spread into a herd that's as much a part of Wisconsin tradition as cheese, beer and the Green Bay Packers.

"It never occurred to me that this would happen," state wildlife veterinarian Julie Langenberg said. "Up until now, we have had a very healthy deer herd."

Three deer killed last fall near Mount Horeb were infected with chronic wasting disease, the first time the illness was found east of the Mississippi River, the state said Feb. 28. Within days, wildlife experts ordered the special hunt to kill 500 deer in a 415-square-mile area of Dane and Iowa counties in southwest Wisconsin. It's the first step in deciding what to do next.

Deer infected with a disease with no known cure and no easy way of being wiped out threatens a Wisconsin way of life, Langenberg said.

Wisconsin had an estimated 1.6 million deer last fall. Each November, nearly 700,000 hunters take to the fields and woods to shoot them. Tens of thousands of people feed deer for recreation.

There's plenty of reason to worry, said Dr. Wayne Cunningham, Colorado state veterinarian. He's dealt with the disease in his state since the late 1960s.

Finding the disease in Wisconsin was totally unexpected because it had been limited to wild deer in three western states - Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, he said.

"I think you have detected the tip of the iceberg when you detect three in a free-roaming population," Cunningham said. "I think it is time to treat this like cancer and cut deep and wide."

That means slaughtering large numbers of deer, Cunningham said.

In Colorado, 1,515 elk in captive herds were killed to stop the disease's spread and wildlife officials want about 4,000 mule deer to be killed in other targeted areas, Cunningham said. The disease continues to spread.

Chronic wasting disease is highly contagious among elk and deer, causing animals to grow thin and die. It is in the same family of brain disorders as mad cow disease, but is not known to be transmissible to humans. Experts do not know how the disease spreads among deer.

The disease infects wild deer and elk in parts of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. It also was diagnosed in captive elk in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

If there is a place in Wisconsin where concerns about chronic wasting disease first came to light, it's near Tom Schulenberg's dairy farm about five miles north of Mount Horeb.

Schulenberg pointed toward a tree-lined ridge just up the road, where his son shot the only buck of the three killed last November that tested positive for the disease and was visibly ill.

"It was so sickly it could hardly move," Schulenberg, 45, recalled. "His eyes were sunk in his head already. It was a bag of bones."

Schulenberg figured the 12-point buck was severely injured after getting hit by a vehicle.

He was stunned when he learned the animal tested positive for chronic wasting disease. Last year, hunters killed 13 deer on his 336 acres. They took 39 deer in 2000.

The state Department of Natural Resources reacted quickly to the disease's discovery:

-More than 600 landowners volunteered to shoot at least one deer per 640-acre section in the surveillance area, and 237 deer were killed by Saturday.

-The DNR set up a command post in nearby Dodgeville, coordinating the hunt with the same urgency as fighting a forest fire. A map filled with pins identifies landowners who have permits to shoot deer and those who have shot a deer. Sophisticated equipment using the global positioning system and satellites pinpoint where each deer was killed.

-Gov. Scott McCallum asked the U.S. Agriculture Department for about $15 million in emergency aid to deal with the disease.

-The state Agriculture Department banned imports of deer and elk from other states unless they come from herds monitored and free of chronic wasting disease for five years.

Last week, DNR wildlife biologist Mark Schmidt traveled some 200 miles from his base in Ladysmith to help collect deer shot for the chronic wasting tests near Mount Horeb.

People in northern Wisconsin also are concerned about the disease, he said, tossing a headless 2-year-old doe into the back of a pickup truck for hauling to a landfill.

"This is just a first step," he said. "I am very worried. I don't see a stop in the spread."

Cunningham, the Colorado veterinarian, said the disease spreads more quickly and becomes more prevalent when there are high populations of deer - the exact situation in southwest Wisconsin.

The days of a disease-free wild herd may be over, he said.

Some are already worried that Wisconsin's deer meat could be tainted.

Chris St. Clair, a hunter from Madison, has 150 pounds of venison in his freezer but his family won't eat any more until the DNR announces the test results on the 500 deer being shot.

That answer is several weeks away.

Gary Turk, 55, of Black Earth, shot a 4-year-old doe pregnant with two fawns so her brain could be tested for the disease. He'll save the meat, he said, but eat it only if the deer tests negative for chronic wasting disease.

Turk hopes the disease was discovered early enough and hasn't widely infected the herd. He saw no sick deer during his hunt.

"If that starts taking off, oh we are in deep trouble," he said. "It would be devastating."

On the Net:

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/whealth/issues/CWD

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