Session evokes deer fears

Session evokes deer fears

March 21, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Dennis Chaptman
Mount Horeb -- Grimly curious about chronic wasting disease and worried about the threat it could pose to Wisconsin's 1.5 million white-tailed deer, about 700 people turned out near the epicenter of the outbreak to quiz state officials Wednesday.

"This is a very big deal," said Randy Berg, a hunter from Argyle. "I don't find it comfortable consuming a deer that's come from an area that's had a chronic wasting disease report. And these hills are some of the best in the state for game." Berg's concern was echoed by many of those who packed the gym at Mount Horeb High School for an informational meeting held by state wildlife and public health officials. It came as state agriculture officials announced tighter controls on farm-raised deer to control the potential spread of the deadly brain disease.

Many at the two-hour meeting expressed concern for the future of the state's white-tailed deer herd, prized by the 700,000 people who hunt deer each fall and the businesses that rely on income from deer hunters.

"I'm a hunter and a landowner, and I enjoy wildlife and nature, and I don't want to see it destroyed," said Marv Schneider of New Glarus.

Tests showed that three bucks shot by hunters and registered in Mount Horeb in November were infected with chronic wasting disease, also called mad deer disease. It marked the first time the ailment was seen in wild deer populations east of the Mississippi River.

As a result, the state Department of Natural Resources ordered a special hunt to shoot and test 500 wild deer in a 416-square-mile area straddling the Dane and Iowa county line. In a corridor outside the gym, DNR staff signed up hunters for special, three-day hunting permits to help gather test samples.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease of the central nervous system that results in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily function and death. State wildlife experts do not know how it got into Wisconsin's white-tailed deer herd.

Many unknowns

There is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans, but there is much that scientists still do not know about the ailment, and they cannot say transmission of the disease to humans is impossible.

James Kazmierczak, of the state Department of Health and Family Services, said he could offer no ironclad assurances.

"Can I say with absolute certainty that chronic wasting disease will not cause human disease? Unfortunately not," Kazmierczak said.

No guarantees were offered on the consequences of eating venison, either.

"No one is going to be able to give you absolute guarantees of future safety," Kazmierczak added. "There are no easy answers with this disease."

Meanwhile, state officials on Wednesday effectively halted farm-raised deer and elk imports from other states.

State veterinarian Clarence Sikory said the imports will no longer be allowed unless they come from herds that have been monitored and have been free of chronic wasting disease for at least five years -- but virtually no herd in the United States has been monitored that long.

Jim Harsdorf, state agriculture secretary, said an emergency rule is being written that will also set tighter regulations on the movement of deer and elk within the state's borders. The rule is also expected to require testing of farm-raised deer when they die or go to be slaughtered.

Tom Howard, a chronic wasting disease field investigator for the DNR, said a couple of the deer that have been harvested in the area "look like deer that would have chronic wasting disease."

"But the vast majority of deer have been fat and healthy," Howard said, noting that test results are not yet back on the recent kills.

Looking for solutions

Asked what long-term strategy state officials have for managing the disease, DNR wildlife veterinarian Julie Langenberg said officials are still weighing their options and consulting with wildlife officials in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska about their experience with the disease.

More intensive sampling is planned in the fall, she said, and added that in some western states, dramatic reductions in deer populations -- of 25% to 50% -- have been used in selected areas where the disease shows up.

Those at the meeting also were concerned about the chance of livestock becoming infected. "I'm scared to death for my cattle," said Mount Horeb-area farmer Bill Roberts. "I'm not saying I'm panicking, but I want some answers."

Roberts said that since the discovery of chronic wasting disease was announced in late February, he has confined his 25 head of beef cattle to avoid contact with deer and their habitat.

Officials said there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to cattle, under normal conditions.

In a related development, U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) on Wednesday told a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official that he was seriously concerned about chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's deer population.

"My state, which is recognized as one of the top deer-hunting states in the country, could suffer significant economic hardship if this disease spreads throughout our wildlife populations," he said.

Kohl said he wanted a prompt response to Gov. Scott McCallum's request for help from USDA. McCallum on Monday asked for nearly $15 million in aid to respond to the outbreak.

The official, William T. Hawks, made no promises on the request but said it would be acted on promptly.

In an interview, Kohl said he would call U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman today to push for the aid to the state.

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