Horns of a dilemma

October 6, 2002 Chicago Tribune by Brenda Fowler
Tommy Schulenberg eases his old Ford pickup onto the narrow shoulder of County Road J, just north of Mt. Horeb, Wis., and points down the grassy embankment to a line of trees about 50 yards away.

"That's where he was shot," he tells me with the self-conscious grin of someone unaccustomed to much fuss. "We heard three shots and then I heard T.J. get on the walkie-talkie, breathing real hard, you know, and he said, 'Dad, I got a big one, get down here.' " The buck was a dandy all right. His rack was a perfect 12-pointer, a rarity in southern Wisconsin, where hunters are so plentiful and efficient that most bucks don't make it beyond their second birthday. It was by far the largest deer the 18-year-old had ever bagged.

But Schulenberg, a wiry dairy farmer who sports a tiny mustache and wastes no words, took one look at the deer and told his son the venison off this one wasn't going in the family's freezer.

"It was skinny, eyeballs sunk in," recalls Schulenberg, who suspected the deer had been injured before it was shot. "I told the boy, just load the whole deer up, don't take the guts out or nothing and show it to the DNR."

In Wisconsin, the acronym needs no explanation. The state's powerful Department of Natural Resources, the guardian of Wisconsin's great outdoors, is frequently a source of frustration for landowners thwarted from thinning their trees, campers disgusted by maintenance of state park privies, hunters annoyed that they saw no pheasants on opening weekend, and environmentalists worried about the privatization of public resources.

But DNR services do occasionally come in handy. At Trollway Liquors, the deer registration site in Mt. Horeb, a DNR employee cut off the animal's head, took a few samples and gave the head back to T.J.

Three months later, the last night of February, a DNR warden came knocking at the Schulenbergs' dairy farm. T.J.'s deer, she said, had chronic wasting disease, a fatal disease of the central nervous system of deer and elk that is related to mad-cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. The disease first appeared in 1967 at a research facility in Colorado and gradually spread to wild deer and elk populations in Colorado and several surrounding states and Canada. But this was the first time it had ever shown up east of the Mississippi. Schulenberg was speechless.

"She asked if I was ever out West," Schulenberg says. "If I ever brought an elk back. Course I hadn't."

The next evening, the discovery was all over the news. The Schulenbergs watched on TV as grim DNR officials announced that three white-tail bucks shot the previous fall, including the Schulenberg deer, had tested positive for the disease, part of a family of disorders called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies--"spongiform" because they leave the brain full of sponge-like holes. Ominously, the disease lies latent for at least a year before symptoms show up--a wasted appearance, drooping head and ears, excessive salivation and urination. The Schulenberg deer was the only one that had even looked sick.

The cause of chronic wasting disease is unknown. There is no cure and no way to test live animals for the disease. The DNR had begun annual random testing in 1999 of several hundred deer shot in the state, after elk imported to captive elk farms in Wisconsin were discovered to have come from infected herds in Colorado. None of these elk had become sick, however, and none of the farms was anywhere near Mt. Horeb.

The three infected animals were all shot within two miles of each other in the hill country of south-central Wisconsin, 20 miles west of Madison. Epidemiologists suggested that each case represented a cluster of live, infected deer. How chronic wasting disease had jumped 1,000 miles east from its source, and why it had turned up in this particular area, no one knew. But it was a bad sign.

"I had no doubt that, left unchecked, this would eventually spread over the entire state, and into Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota," says Tom Hauge, the amiable DNR wildlife manager whose name has become a household word in Mt. Horeb. "Folks could see us as the gateway to the eastern white-tail deer population."

That was not the only thing at risk. Deer are part of Wisconsin's "lifestyle," as Hauge puts it. The verb heard again and again in discussions of deer is "enjoy." People enjoy watching them, hunters enjoy hunting them, and their families enjoy eating the venison. In order to preserve those traditions and rituals, the DNR felt it had to take drastic action.

Over the next few weeks, the DNR shot and tested more deer, and more positives turned up. A University of Wisconsin biometrician predicted that if nothing was done, the state's whitetail population would crash within 20 years.

Hauge and a large team of experts, including staff from his department and two other agencies, formulated a plan to do what no other state yet had been able to manage: eradicate chronic wasting disease. The plan was aggressive and the logistics of it were mind-numbing. In early May, the DNR made public what people on the inside had seen coming from the beginning: Every deer in the infected area--at least 25,000 animals--would have to be killed, and landowners would be enlisted to do the job.

Driving west out of Madison, taking the back way to bypass the strip malls and stoplights, you hit the hills right away. The road rounds over a hilltop thick in tall sweet corn, and then drops gently into a cool shaded grove. There's a stream at the bottom of every valley, and plenty of forest trimming the fields of corn and soybeans and hay.

People love these mounds, as the isolated hills are known, and they have built homes on many a ridge and in many a valley, sometimes on just a patch of land tucked in among farm fields, and sometimes on enormous wooded tracts where they can hunt. There are deer out here, hundreds of thousands of them--more deer, in fact, than there are people and far too many for the coyotes to keep them in check. Until chronic wasting disease turned up, says Tom Howard, a wildlife biologist at the DNR's Dodgeville station, this was about as close to paradise as a deer could get.

The station is now the "CWD operations center," where Howard and his boss, Carl Batha, are overseeing the execution of the eradication plan. Six feet tall and ramrod straight, Howard has worked at the DNR for 27 years, and one can easily imagine him as the voice of calm reason in the volatile man-versus-animal incidents that people with his job frequently face.

He immediately starts reeling out statistics. There are between 1.5 million and 1.6 million deer in Wisconsin just before the fall hunt, he says, and most are in the southern part of the state, where winters are milder and food, especially crops, is bountiful. A helicopter survey over the CWD-affected area last winter counted as many as 112 in one square mile, while the post-fawning season average is probably 70.

"When you look at that countryside from the air, you'd swear sometimes you were looking at ants," says Howard.

In those numbers, their impact on the Wisconsin landscape is hardly benign: Each year, DNR contractors pick up at least 40,000 deer killed in collisions with cars, and perhaps 20,000 more are struck but die somewhere off the road. The cost of damage to vehicles is at least $34 million, according to the Deer-Vehicle Crash Information Clearinghouse in Madison. One 1984 study by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection found that deer caused $36.7 million in damage to agriculture, but farmers believe that figure to be much higher. No one has even tried to put a dollar figure on the harm deer cause to native plant communities that the DNR and other groups work to cultivate.

"It's horrendous to me when I walk in the woods around here and see a 10-year-old oak tree that's only hip high and looks like a bonsai bush because of constant browsing," Howard says.

The DNR and hunters blame each other for the overpopulation. The DNR says hunters resist extended seasons because they want to make sure they see a lot of deer when they go out. Hunters say if the DNR is so concerned with numbers they shouldn't make them pay for every deer they kill. In any case, because the deer's natural predators are few, the task of controlling their numbers is left mainly to the hunters--688,540 in 2001--who turn out each fall for the state's gun and archery seasons. Last year, hunters statewide took more than 444,384 deer, and the year before a record 615,393 deer, lopping the wintering population down to about 1 million. By early June, after the does had dropped their fawns, the population was right back up where it had started, and probably higher.

So hospitable is the southern Wisconsin climate for deer that most does give birth for the first time when they're just a year old. "That's an outrageous rate of increase," Howard says.

Like everyone at the DNR, Howard was shocked and mystified when CWD suddenly reared up in his area. "When you have that many deer, the propensity for a contagious disease to run rampant through the herd is much greater," he says, indicating a detailed property map of the area with a bull's-eye drawn in its center. "The disease is radiating out from this central location where there's a dense population of positives. We went out four miles from every positive sample to delineate what we refer to as an eradication zone."

Inside the 389-square mile area live at least 25,000 deer, and the goal, he says, is to kill them all. Surrounding the eradication zone, and extending out 40 miles from its center, is the management zone, where no infected deer have yet been found. Inside this roughly doughnut-shaped area, Howard says, enough deer will be killed to reduce the population to about 10 per square mile, and all will be tested. Finally, about 500 deer will be tested in each county statewide, a total of at least 25,000, and Howard says the results will determine with 99 percent certainty whether CWD exists in a county at a 1 percent rate or higher. If any infected deer turn up outside the eradication or the management zones, the DNR acknowledges that all bets are off. So far, the number of infected deer killed inside the eradication zone stands at 31, a number which suggests that 3 percent of that population may be infected, according to John Cary, a biometrician at the University of Wisconsin's department of wildlife ecology (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).

"If this disease had been around any longer than just a couple of years, then we would be getting numerous, numerous, numerous phone calls about deer that are lying dead here and deer that are lying dead there," Howard says. "There would be a public outcry like you wouldn't believe."

To have time to kill the deer, the gun hunting season in the eradication and management zones has been greatly expanded from the traditional nine days around Thanksgiving to more than three months, from Oct. 23 to Jan. 31, and Howard is in the office this August weekend for the third of four weeklong summer hunts in the eradication zone. It's a terrible time to hunt--it's hot, the sticky air is full of bugs and you can't see through all the foliage--and only about 50 deer, including those shot by the DNR's own staff, are coming in every day. Of the 1,800 landowners in the eradication zone, about 300 said they would allow DNR marksmen onto their land and 1,112 more requested permits, suggesting they would do the job themselves. Howard thinks these figures demonstrate that most landowners are behind the eradication plan, but he's clearly troubled by the opposition.

Yet he, too, has mixed feelings. "I've spent a quarter of a century protecting and managing wildlife, and now I'm running around in the summertime killing fawns," he says. Nevertheless, he seems energized by his mission. "We're all aware that we're not going to shoot them down to the very last deer," he says. "But the population can be reduced to such a low level that we think we can halt the transmission of this disease."

State officials are understandably concerned that the publicity about CWD will keep hunters away from the forests this fall. The number of license sales for the fall hunt is down by 18 to 20 percent compared to last year, and surveys have suggested that CWD may keep some hunters from going out. In June, the state issued an emergency rule that banned the baiting and feeding of deer, which causes deer to congregate and, they fear, makes disease transmission more likely. But the practice is almost universal in some areas, and banning it may also discourage hunters. Illinois, which last year sent nearly 10,000 hunters to Wisconsin, has banned the import of deer and elk carcasses into the state, which means Illinois hunters will have to bone out their meat before returning home.

Despite these disincentives, as well as the powerful taboo among many hunters against killing something that they won't eat, Thomas Heberlein, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who has studied hunters for decades, says he thinks that as the "holy week" approaches, many hunters simply won't be able to resist the call of the wild. His occasional collaborator, university economist Richard Bishop, says concern about the economic impact of Wisconsin hunters staying home is probably misplaced. Residents spend about $500 million on the sport annually, he says, but if they don't hunt they will still spend the money on other activities. The real loss lies in the value deer hunters get out of hunting, he notes. The economic damage will more likely be between $5 million and $10 million, the amount normally spent by hunters from out of state.

"What should the Illinois hunter be thinking?" asks Robert Shull, the director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Madison, which has hurriedly set up a new $900,000 lab where most of the tests will be done. "They should field-dress and butcher the deer, put it in a freezer, after harvesting the steaks, and find out if the county has CWD. If not, it's as safe to eat as any food product."

When I was in 9th grade, my family moved from a suburb of Minneapolis to Appleton, Wis., in the east central part of the state. Of the many new rituals I encountered during that transition, one stood out: On the Monday before my first Thanksgiving, nearly every boy--and a few girls, too--were missing from my first-hour homeroom.

"Where are they?" I whispered to a curly-haired girl named Michelle.

"Deer hunting," came the reply.

It wasn't cool to ask questions, but I had a lot. Like, what's so great about deer hunting?

I resuscitate that question while sweltering in a lawn chair on the edge of a cornfield next to a hunter with a loaded rifle who is waiting for a deer--potentially a sick one--to walk out of the forest so he can shoot it. But before I can ask, it starts to pour. Balletic sheets of rain twirl over the field below us, and the water drops loudly onto our laps and heads. We hadn't prepared for this, so there is nothing to be done but to shrink deeply into the dry bits of our clothes. In a few minutes, the deluge is over, the temperature, thankfully, has dropped 20 degrees, and the damp air is suddenly busy with gray swallows that swoop and soar in the blue light above us. Soon a hummingbird bobs up a few feet away, and sticks there for a magical instant before darting off.

"It's really nice right now," whispers the hunter, Mark Nortman, who owns the land we're sitting on, near the center of the eradication zone. "This is what it's about, it's being in nature, being out here with this beautiful view. It's not just about killing something."

Nortman, a banker in Mineral Point, is a bear of a man and generous. He agreed to take me hunting after I called him off the DNR's list of landowners. From somewhere beyond the cornfield I hear someone shouting, and then a few voices.

"Farmhouse," Nortman says.

The sound of cars on a highway reaches us, too. This isn't exactly the wilderness, but people grab their little slice of nature wherever they can get it.

Nortman's grandfather and father hunted, and he intends to pass it on to his own sons as soon as they're old enough to go.

"There's a lot of time that you sit here and wait and it gives you a lot of time to think about things--life and work, and you know," Nortman says after a while. "There are decisions that get made." I ask him what kind of decisions, but he just smiles and shakes his head.

And then Nortman spies him. A buck has stepped gingerly out of the forest 200 yards to our right, and is leisurely approaching an apple tree.

"See him? See him?" Nortman says with a new excitement, peering through his rifle's scope.

But just as quickly as the animal appeared, he disappears and Nortman isn't sure where he went. "I lost him," he says.

It's 5:45 p.m. Nortman's hunting buddy, Dan Palzkill, calls on the cell phone to say that he is off work and is speeding out to join us. By the time Palzkill shows up some 45 minutes later, wearing fatigues and a blaze orange cap and vest, Nortman's theory is that the deer has simply sat down in the grass near the apple tree. For the next 10 minutes, the two strategize over where to sit, whether to stand, and how to move. Finally they agree that we will remain at our station while Palzkill circles around behind the tree. As Palzkill takes off through the cornfield, Nortman makes sure his gun is dry and scans the weeds through his scope. A few minutes later, we see Palzkill's jacket flashing through the thin forest behind the apple tree.

Suddenly one deer emerges and dashes into the cornfield. Then a second one appears, moving away from Palzkill and toward us.

"Big buck, big buck, big buck," Palzkill yells toward us, his voice an octave high.

Nortman has his gun at his shoulder.

"Sit tight, sit tight," he whispers to me, and I freeze, my heart accelerating, as the buck approaches, not running in fear, but casually bounding and leaping through the field deep with goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace and wild parsnip.

I don't see the buck drop when Nortman's gun goes off, but when I can focus again on the field, the picture has changed.

"Whoa. Got him. Wow," Nortman yells, stalking off through the weeds. Palzkill is loping across the field. The buck is down, but not dead yet. The shot struck high in the neck. He lies still for a moment, and then tosses his head back frantically a few times, rustling the weeds. Palzkill herds us out of sight so as not to panic the dying animal.

Nortman is elated. The antlers are large, and they're covered in velvet, the term for capillaries that feed the antlers as they grow and are as soft as the name implies. In Nortman's lifetime, it's never been legal to hunt bucks in the summer, when they're in velvet, so this one is special.

Palzkill goes down to the animal again and whispers something at it.

"I told him it was all right to go," he says when I ask.

But still, the buck isn't dying. Palzkill takes Nortman's gun and finishes him off.

Before a photographer can snap its picture, Palzkill sticks the deer's tongue, which droops out like that of a cartoon dead man, back in the mouth, and he dabs up blood from the entry wounds.

It's dark by the time we reach the DNR collection site at the Trout Creek State Fishery Area, just north of Barneveld, which is ablaze under powerful lights that reveal an impromptu operating room. Workers in baby blue safety suits, goggles and enormous gloves flash in and out of the light, unloading deer from vehicles that have backed up to two picnic tables pushed together and covered in clear plastic. The deer lie with their heads hung over the side of the tables. Using pliers, one person removes a tooth from the mouth and then saws the head off in five or six quick strokes. A bucket below catches the fluids that dribble out of the body cavity. By Hollywood standards, there is surprisingly little blood.

The head is placed in a plastic bag to be taken to the lab in Madison. The body, if the hunter doesn't want it, goes in another bag that is then loaded into a refrigerator truck and eventually will be disposed of. Where and how the disposal of the potentially infectious body will happen is one of the more troublesome issues the DNR faces. While the carcass is being tended to, a DNR employee interviews the hunters: Where precisely were the deer shot? How many other deer did the hunter see? How long did it take?

Come fall, the collection operation will be reproduced all across the state, staffed at least in part by volunteers and DNR employees whose job descriptions have nothing to do with deer. In hearing what's not going to get done this fall, I realize just how highly engineered the Wisconsin wilderness really is. One worker, Renee Kerska from Vernon County, would normally be collecting native wildflower seeds to plant next spring and mowing grassland. Part of Tom Howard's job is to stock and restock public lands with DNR-raised pheasants ("50 generations removed from the wild," he says).

Beyond the lights of the sampling table, the parking lot is a gridlock of vehicles. One pair of hunters stand self-consciously next to a small flatbed truck heaped with does and fawns whose coats still bear the white spots of their first months.

"I feel like Cruella DeVil," one hunter says. "I can't even look at them."

Still, he feels it's his duty. "Like voting," he says.

He and a friend took just 20 minutes to shoot five deer. It's easy pickings now. People can shoot deer from their bedroom window. Like Nortman, most hunter landowners just set up a lawn chair next to a field. But they wonder whether they're going to want to spend the time actually tracking down deer when there are just 10 per square mile. Not everyone is fully behind the eradication plan, and a few suggest the DNR should at least offer a bounty. In any case, eradicating deer is not real hunting, everyone tells me.

The question that plagues every discussion of CWD is this: Can humans get it? One August morning, DNR veterinarian Julie Langenberg invites me to sit in on a meeting of the inter-agency science team that recommended the eradication plan. Langenberg, who wears a Mickey Mouse watch and has the kind of demeanor you want in someone taking care of your sick puppy, has quickly become the department's top expert on CWD. Before the meeting I ask her whether she thought the DNR would be going to so much trouble if they were absolutely sure humans could not catch it, and the question seems to take her aback.

"We're doing this for the sake of long-term deer populations," Langenberg says.

But the threat to humans is topic No. 1 among the scientists this morning. Just to Langenberg's right sits Jim Kazmierczak, an epidemiologist with the state's Department of Health and Family Services, and just to his right is Dr. Vincent Hsu, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Hsu and an assistant have come to investigate the deaths of two Wisconsin men, both hunters who ate game, including some from Colorado, at annual feasts at a cabin up north. Both men died in the 1990s of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a kind of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy peculiar to humans, which, in some cases, is caused by eating beef from cows with mad-cowdisease. Kazmierczak and Hsu now want specimens from the men's brains re-examined, and they want to track down all the other people who ate at the feasts.

No case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has yet been positively traced to the consumption of venison infected with CWD, but Wisconsin officials are wary of offering assurances on deer meat, especially in a state where many families see the winter through with plenty of venison steaks, burgers and brats. In 1990 the British Agriculture Minister John Gummer famously endorsed the safety of British beef by feeding his 4-year-old daughter a hamburger before the press. Not long after, officials announced the link between mad cow-infected beef and a new type of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. According to an official count, 125 people in Britain--as well as a handful on the Continent--have acquired the disease through beef, and most are dead.

"I keep a photo of Gummer next to my desk," Jim Kazmierczak tells me later.

Following the advice of the Centers for Disease Control as well as the World Health Organization, the DNR has advised people to wear gloves when gutting deer, and not to eat the animal's eyes, brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes or any part that looks sick. These are the places where prions--the infectious agents believed to be responsible for CWD--collect. [According to the WHO, "It is advised that any tissue which may come from deer or elk with Chronic Wasting Disease is not used in animal or human food."--BSE coordinator]

Prions are neither viruses nor bacteria, the two commonly known causes of disease, but cellular proteins that get converted into an abnormal shape, gradually clogging up the cell and killing it. Since the debut of mad-cow disease, legions of researchers have taken up the study of the prion, but only a few have looked carefully at CWD. They do not know where it came from, or precisely how it spreads, though the likely route is through saliva, urine or feces, rather than contaminated feed. Neither do they know how long prions left in the environment remain a threat.

Of all the people in Wisconsin working on chronic wasting disease, no one seems as burdened by the prion problem as the man at the end of the line. Joe Brusca, the DNR's waste disposal expert, has to find a place for the 25,000 to 50,000 deer carcasses that will be rolling in during the fall hunt. It doesn't help that prions are tough to destroy. Radiation doesn't do it, and neither does incineration at low temperatures or low concentrations of disinfectants like bleach. Public landfills have refused to take them because, despite recent assurances, they're worried that prions could leach through the fill and end up in the sludge that eventually gets spread on Wisconsin farmland.

Brusca's plan is to burn the carcasses in a high-temperature incinerator in Poynette, 30 miles north of Madison. The cost is high--85 cents a pound--and a typical deer weighs 120 pounds. The bill for this season could be more than $2.5 million, not including the incineration of the heads from areas outside the eradication zone.

"I was hoping to find out some alternatives at the chronic wasting disease conference in Denver last month, but what I found out is that they're all waiting to see what we do," he says.

What infuriates Ross Reinhold is that the DNR has launched such a massive eradication plan in the face of so much scientific uncertainty. Reinhold, who is 60 and has the serious eyes and measured words of a scholar, lives with his wife in a picturesque cedar house on a 10-acre parcel near the center of the eradication zone. He's invited me over to talk about his opposition group, Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter, whose petition to halt the eradication plan has been signed by the owners of more than one-third of the land in the zone, he says.

Reinhold says he has nothing against hunting, but he believes that until the DNR has adequately sampled the state for CWD, they should not expose residents to the dangers of an extended hunting season.

An incident with two DNR marksmen last June hardened his opinion. While sitting on a friend's patio deck one evening about 10:30 p.m., he saw a light sweep across a nearby field and then heard a gunshot. Upon investigation he discovered two men "were road hunting less than 200 feet from [the] house," Reinhold wrote on the Web site he developed for the citizen's group. Some of the facts are disputed by both the DNR and Reinhold's friends, but DNR spokesman Greg Matthews says the emaciated deer was shot in a ditch, after standing frozen in the headlights of the men's vehicle for more than two minutes.

"They're hunting at night, hunting from the road, from vehicles, engaging in practices that we've been told are dumb and unsafe," Reinhold says. "Maybe you have to compromise the purity of the plan for the sake of the human element. People are part of this environment, too."

Just down the country road from Reinhold live two more members of Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter, Mark Kessenich and Linda Derrickson. They are farmers who also run the Othala Valley Inn. At one public hearing in Mt. Horeb last spring, Derrickson's tearful evocations of how deer connect people to their ancestors through the ritual of the hunt, and to the community at large through the sharing of venison, brought her a heartfelt round of applause.

Kessenich, a soft-spoken, articulate man who used to work in a protein lab, says that based on what he's read about chronic wasting disease, he believes that the infectious model is wrong. He suggests the disease may well have been present in deer all along at low levels, possibly started by a poison in the environment.

"We could decide to let nature take control of this," Derrickson says.

While researchers do not dismiss the idea that environmental contaminants may be linked to chronic wasting disease, the DNR is convinced that nature's not going to take care of it. Humans brought CWD in, they believe, and they have to stop it too.

Not far from the Othala Creek Inn lives a couple, both hunters, whose living-room walls are hung with trophy bucks, all taken from their 500-acre property. For the last dozen years, Pat and Greer Sutter carefully cultivated their land and the deer herds that run there--culling out the does and letting the young bucks go so they could grow even bigger antlers the next year. They put out mineral feed to improve the buck's antlers, planted plots of soybeans for them to eat, and made little ponds where they could drink. During hunting season, friends and neighbors gathered in their home around a big pot of chili.

"And kids would sit and listen to us old guys tell stories and get them all laughing . . . ." says Pat, a conservationist with the Dane County Land Conservation Department. "It's really hard to accept that it's all going to change."

I give him a map of the area, and he makes three dots--one for each of the first three positive cases found--and he notes that they form a neat triangle, and right in the center of that triangle is his family's property.

The rumors, he says, started right away. That he had imported a big breeder buck from somewhere out in Colorado, kept it in a pen, and then released it onto his land to improve the herd. Or it might have come from Texas. Or Saskatchewan. Or maybe it was a fawn from Iowa.

"I was up at a restaurant in Mt. Horeb and I saw a group of guys I knew and they were being standoffish, and I went up to them and said, 'Hi guys, how you doing; you wouldn't be talking about the breeder buck and me, would you?" he says.

They were.

"Well, I'm totally innocent, and it's bizarre that somebody would start a rumor like that," he says.

Tom Solin, the DNR's chief investigator of the CWD outbreak, has heard that rumor and scores of others.

"It's been reported that people brought things in, rumors that it came from scrapie, and there are rumors of escapes of animals from deer farms, and you can't put more weight to one of them than to any of the rest," he says wearily.

In fact, he admits, his wardens recently learned that in 1999 at least one deer did escape from a deer farm on the border of the eradication zone, and it was out for several months before a bow hunter shot it. The owner did not report the escape, and the animal was not tested for CWD. "The biggest problem we have is that a lot of states have not kept good records of deer farms, Wisconsin being one of them," he says.

According to the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Wisconsin has 947 captive deer and elk farms, which include everything from a pen holding a few deer in back of a bar to farms raising elk for meat, exotic animal exhibits, and thousand-acre game preserves, and together they hold 35,277 animals. No chronic wasting disease has been found on the farms, but only about 20 percent of them have been testing.

Last April, Wisconsin imposed a moratorium on the import of deer and elk from herds that had not been under a CWD monitoring program for at least five years, but 410 animals have been legally imported since 1995 from states where the disease has turned up among captive elk.

Solin is also alert to the possibility that the disease could have been transmitted through a deer nibbling on the bones of an infected carcass. Last year more than 7,000 Wisconsin residents purchased licenses for deer and elk hunting in Colorado. "If they live rurally, they bring them back, they bone them out, and they throw the carcasses on the landscape," Solin says.

I consider the specter of a landscape dotted with little infectious piles of deer or elk as I'm driving back to Madison one evening from my visits with the sad folks in the eradication zone. In a few weeks, when the leaves start to fall, these hills will be ringing with the sound of gunshot. Over the course of the next few years, the DNR's ambitious plan to save the Wisconsin whitetails may well succeed in eliminating tens of thousands of deer. But the borders of the disease are ephemeral. All it takes for chronic wasting disease to flare up again is one sick deer.

CORRECTION: Additional material published Oct. 6, 2002.


A story in today's preprinted Magazine on chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin deer says that the disease has not been found on any of the state's captive deer and elk farms. After the Magazine went to press, officials announced that a buck shot on a game farm in Portage County had tested positive for the disease.

This story also contains corrected material, published Oct. 9, 2002.

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