700 deer in test area might be infected

700 deer in test area might be infected
Official says chronic wasting disease could spread quickly because of packed deer herd

March 16, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Susan Lampert Smith
As many as 700 deer in western Dane County and eastern Iowa County may be infected with chronic wasting disease, a state official speculated Friday.

Sarah Shapiro-Hurley, a deputy director with the Department of Natural Resources, predicted that the outbreak in southern Wisconsin's deer herd could quickly dwarf problems faced in Colorado and other Western states. Previous experience with the disease, which causes deer to lose weight and die, is based on Western deer and elk densities of five to 10 animals per square mile. "Here, we're talking about densities of 50 to 120 deer per square mile," said Shapiro-Hurley, a wildlife veterinarian. "We're up against a much more difficult scenario."

Scientists believe the disease, a relative of mad cow disease, spreads more quickly if deer are densely packed. There is no record of chronic wasting disease spreading to humans.

Shapiro-Hurley said that as many as 700 deer in the 415-square-mile surveillance area may be infected, based on the fact that three of 82 deer tested in Mount Horeb in November had the disease, an infection rate of 3 to 4 percent.

"There are 20,000 deer in the area and if it (the infection rate) held true, you'd be talking about a lot of deer," Shapiro-Hurley said.

She spoke Friday morning at a news conference outside the DNR Dodgeville headquarters, which has been turned into a command center to coordinate a major sampling effort.

The DNR wants area landowners to kill 500 deer, a rate of one per 640-acre section, in an effort to see how far the disease has spread. Deer must be killed because the only way to test for the disease is to examine their brain stems for the telltale damage of the disease.

Inside the command center, phones rang as landowners called in to volunteer to shoot the deer. A giant plat map of the area bristled with green push pins, showing where permits had been issued, and red pins, showing where deer had been killed. As of noon Friday, the DNR had issued about 300 permits, and 18 deer had been reported killed.

The command center was staffed with DNR people from many departments, part of a massive effort that includes state and federal employees driving farm to farm to recruit enough people to shoot deer for a scientifically valid sample.

Shapiro-Hurley said she didn't have an estimate of how much the effort was costing the DNR, which, like all state agencies, is facing budget cuts. The DNR is "redirecting other resources" to pay for the testing.

"This is a crisis of such magnitude that we're not going to shortchange this effort to take care of more everyday tasks," she said.

Each deer head tested for the disease at a federal laboratory in Ames, Iowa, will cost the state about $30. In addition, technology to safely disposal of infected animals is costly. The disease is caused by a prion, a small protein that isn't technically alive.

"We can't kill it and we don't know how to stop the transmission," she said.

Shapiro-Hurley said the deer brains and spinal cords must be burned at temperatures of 900 degrees -- agencies in the West used military napalm -- or chemically digested. She said the state has looked into buying a chemical digester and learned they cost $900,000.

Gov. Scott McCallum has been talking to the federal agriculture officials to find out what federal resources might be available to help the state, a spokeswoman said Friday.

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