Escaped deer tests positive for chronic wasting disease

December 14, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist

A deer that escaped from a Walworth County game farm and roamed freely for at least six months has tested positive for chronic wasting disease, officials said Friday.

A 1 1/2-year-old buck from a farm in the Town of Troy that was shot by sharpshooters Oct. 22 tested positive for the fatal deer disease, the Department of Natural Resources said.

It was the first escaped deer in Wisconsin found to have the disease, although a captive deer from the same farm tested positive earlier this fall.

Meanwhile, the latest results from deer shot during the 2002 hunting season have yet to uncover any wild deer with the disease outside a 411-square-mile zone west of Madison. A total of 1,803 deer killed outside that zone have been tested, and none has tested positive, the DNR said. Results are still very preliminary, however, because hunters submitted more than 37,000 deer heads for testing from across the state.

The DNR reported four more positive cases within the zone. That brings to 48 the number of deer that tested positive for chronic wasting disease out of 2,058 samples from the zone that have been analyzed to date.

At this point, chronic wasting disease has festered in portions of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties at an incidence rate of 2.33%.

Wisconsin officials are still trying to determine how chronic wasting disease came to Wisconsin. While there are several explanations, leading theories point to its spread from game farm operators or someone bringing a diseased deer from the West back to Wisconsin. Chronic wasting disease has afflicted deer in Colorado and Wyoming for more than 30 years.

The DNR sent wardens to 590 deer farms this fall -- checking fences to make sure none escaped and in some cases checking financial records to track transactions. The agency said it will continue to investigate the leads it is currently working on after Jan. 1, when much of the agency's powers on deer farms move to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

New leads will be given to the agriculture department, said Tim Lawhern, a DNR warden and hunter education coordinator.

As for the newest finding in Walworth County, officials are assessing the situation and debating what to do next.

One option would be to kill all of the deer around the game farm in the Town of Troy that is owned by James Hirschboeck. But that kind of scorched-earth policy is premature, DNR spokesman Bob Manwell said.

Wisconsin officials decided earlier this year to kill all of the deer in the region west of Madison after chronic wasting disease was discovered Feb. 28. But Manwell said the situation in Walworth County is different.

The diseased deer from Hirschboeck's farm had been in the wild for six or seven months, while the DNR has theorized that chronic wasting disease had been in the region west of Madison for at least three years, he said.

Hunters killed 117 deer in Walworth County, mostly during the deer hunting season. Thirty of those deer have been tested, and none has tested positive for the disease, the DNR said.

"We are very disappointed to learn that the escaped deer tested positive," said Tom Hauge, director of wildlife management for the DNR in a statement.

Game wardens shot four deer in late October outside Hirschboeck's property after it was learned the deer had escaped. Manwell said he did not believe the other deer tested positive.

Hirschboeck's farm came under scrutiny by the DNR after it was discovered that he had bought deer from another Walworth County deer farm that is suspected to have sold a deer to a third farm, in Portage County, that later tested positive.

The agriculture department said all 118 deer on Hirschboeck's farm were killed Wednesday.

Hirschboeck said of Friday's announcement: "It's news to me."

He said he would need to see some proof that the deer had tested positive for the disease.

The agriculture department has plans to kill all of the deer on the Portage County farm and the other Walworth County farm.

The other Walworth County farm has not had a deer test positive for the disease.

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