Ag department criticized over game farms

May 14, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist
Former Natural Resources Secretary George Meyer criticized the state agriculture department Monday for not doing enough to control the spread of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin.

"It is clear that (the department) should have done more to test and regulate game farms and prohibit the import of elk and deer from areas with chronic wasting disease, but they refused to do it," Meyer said.

The agriculture department has known since 1998 that some elk had been shipped to Wisconsin game farms from out-of-state herds that had tested positive for the disease, according to state records.

DNR staff expressed concern that year about the outbreak of the disease in the West, with one staff member recommending that Wisconsin place a moratorium on importing game farm animals for fear that the disease might be introduced into Wisconsin's wild deer herd, records show. Wisconsin officials say one possible cause for the outbreak of the deadly disease here -- first reported on Feb. 28 -- could be traced back to game farms in the West and in Canada, where the disease has been present for years.

Meyer served as natural resources secretary from 1993 until February 2001, when Gov. Scott McCallum succeeded Tommy G. Thompson and appointed Darrell Bazzell secretary of the agency. Meyer recently retired from the department.

Meyer was joined by three Dane County supervisors and John Stauber, a Madison writer and co-author of "Mad Cow U.S.A.," on Monday to publicly criticize the agriculture department.

Response to criticism

State Veterinarian Clarence Siroky disputed the claims that the department has dragged its feet, noting that it approved emergency rules last month to step up testing and effectively block the shipment of game animals into the state.

"It's inflammatory," Siroky said. "It's their opinion, and I don't agreed with it."

He said the agency has monitored 21 elk imported from infected herds in Colorado and Nebraska. Nineteen have lived longer than the five years that experts say it takes for the disease to kill an animal, or they have died and tested negative.

Two other animals died on a game farm in Waupaca County and were not tested. But Siroky said that other elk on the farm have lived longer than five years.

Dane County Supervisor Brett Hulsey said the group wants mandatory testing on game farms for dead and diseased animals. He and the others called on the Legislature, which is expected to vote Wednesday on a funding package to fight the disease, to require mandatory testing of all game farm animals that die on the farm.

Hulsey blamed the department for worrying more about protecting game farms than trying to stop chronic wasting disease.

"It's all a pattern of denial," he said.

But Siroky questioned whether the real agenda is to get rid of game farms altogether.

He said emergency rules approved in early April require testing for the disease of any farm-raised deer or elk when they died or go to slaughter. Also, those rules ban the importing of deer and elk unless those animals have been monitored for the disease for five years.

He added, however, that the group's recommendations to test all dead and diseased animals would be too hard to administer. Some game farms are wooded areas on hundreds of acres. Ranchers could not monitor all of the animals closely enough, he said.

Since the DNR reported that three deer shot last fall tested positive for the disease, a total of 516 deer have been killed near Mount Horeb in western Dane County. Eleven tested positive for the disease, which is similar to mad cow disease. State officials have plans to kill thousands more deer in 10 counties in southern and southwestern Wisconsin this year.

More shooting today

As part of those control measures, the DNR said it will start shooting deer today in the 1,153-acre Blue Mound State Park west of Madison. Sharpshooters from the agency and the U.S. Agriculture Department will hunt from the ground.

The park closed Monday afternoon and will reopen about noon today. A handful of campers registered in park will be accompanied during the shooting by park personnel.

The DNR also said it will not issue permits to shoot deer in a 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb this week. The agency is working with Dane County officials to answer concerns about dumping deer in the county-owned landfill.

The DNR probably will use refrigerated trucks to store the deer until it works out the disposal issue, officials said.

50 question their safety

In a related development Monday night, about 50 people showed up at a Vermont Town Board meeting to voice concerns about their safety when the shooting begins next week in the area.

Residents asked the DNR to slow plans to eradicate deer in a surrounding 287-square-mile area until there are more answers about the agency's plan to kill the animals. They also asked if the agency said there are any alternatives to killing thousands of deer in the area.

The Town Board is considering whether to formally oppose the DNR's plans but took no action Monday.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal disease of the central nervous system that affects the brain and spinal cord. There is no evidence that the disease affects humans or any species other than deer and elk [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator].

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