February 28, 2002 Associated PressFor the first time, the deadly brain ailment known as chronic wasting disease has been found in Wisconsin's deer herd, officials said Thursday.
Tests found the disease in three deer killed during the gun hunting season in November, the Department of Natural Resources said.
All three were bucks 2 1/2 to 3 years old. They were killed in Iowa and Dane Counties in south central Wisconsin and registered in Mount Horeb, DNR officials said. The discovery marked the first time the disease has been found in deer east of the Mississippi River, DNR veterinarian Julia Langenberg said.
"I'm certainly concerned about implications for the health of our deer herd in the state," Langenberg said.
The disease has been diagnosed in wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming and in adjacent Nebraska, officials said, and also in captive elk in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
Recognized in 1967, chronic wasting disease causes animals to grow thin and die. It comes from the same family as mad cow disease but is not known to be transmissible to humans.
James Kazmierczak, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Family Services, said no chronic wasting disease has been found in Colorado residents after 16 years of monitoring the infected area in that state.
Experts still suggest that hunters avoid eating the brain, spinal chord, eyes, tonsils, spleen or lymph nodes of white-tailed deer and elk because the infectious agent tends to concentrate in those tissues.
Langenberg said the state has just begun determining the scope of the problem.
"We need to interview the hunters who let us sample their deer, find out exactly where the deer were taken and whether these deer exhibited unusual behavior," she said.
The state has been testing wild deer since 1999, running tests on an average of about 400 animals a year, she said. Hunters volunteer to let the state take tissue samples from the heads of deer they bring to registration stations.
Results from other deer tested from last fall will be released soon, Langenberg said.
Officials said there is no threat to cattle or sheep.
They do not know how the deer became infected, but the state will conduct a study to try to determine the source, officials said.
Bob Ehlenfeldt, assistant state veterinarian, said the disease poses no known threat to humans.
"As far as anyone knows there is no known risk from the meat or anything else," he said.
He also said the experience with the disease in Colorado has not resulted in any reduction in hunting.
Wisconsin game managers have been trying for years to reduce the size of the deer herd. They predict that that after this mild winter, the herd could again total 1.6 million deer going into next fall's hunt.
Last year, about 420,000 deer were killed by hunters, down from the record of just over 615,000 in 2000.
The state also has an experimental elk herd in the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin. The herd of 25 elk from Michigan released near Clam Lake in 1995 grew to at least 80 animals by last year.
Agriculture officials said they have 44 herds of farm-raised elk enrolled in a voluntary surveillance program for chronic wasting disease, and all tests have beennegative.
Ehlenfeldt said deer that have the disease start showing clinical signs such as salivation, wobbling and weight loss at about 15 to 30 months old.
"Then it's a fairly rapid progression, probably only a few months from the clinical onset until they die," he said.
Steve Oestreicher, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, said the discovery of the disease in deer in the state came as bad news but was not unexpected.
"The whole thing on this disease, it wasn't 'if' anymore, it was 'when'," he said.
The congress, which serves as a citizens advisory group for the state Natural Resources Board, has held study sessions on the disease in the past and will work on more educational efforts for hunters, he said.