Tougher anti-CWD rules sought for game farms;
Proposed rules do not require all game farms to test for the deer disease, critics say.

July 14, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Ron Seely
New regulations aimed at preventing chronic wasting disease among farm-raised deer and elk in Wisconsin may not be tough enough, according to law enforcement and wildlife officials with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The rules have been proposed by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Hearings will be conducted throughout the state starting Tuesday.

Some critics argue the proposed rules are inadequate in the face of a fatal brain disease that could decimate the state's deer herd. The proposed rules, they say, do not require all game farms to test for the disease. And they do not sufficiently address such important issues as fencing and escaped animals. Among those criticizing the rules are officials with the state Department of Natural Resources, which just put in place an aggressive plan to control CWD in the state's wild white-tail deer. Some with the department fear weaknesses in the regulation of the state's nearly 1,000 deer and elk farms may represent a large loophole in efforts to stop the spread of the disease.

"I think there are some real questions that have to be addressed," said Bill Mytton, a DNR deer biologist, of the proposed rules. Mytton has been especially outspoken about the need to regulate game farms since announcing his departure from the agency. Active in putting together the DNR's response to CWD, Mytton is leaving for Montana where he will work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Tom Solin, chief of the DNR's Special Operations Section in the Bureau of Law Enforcement, said that up to now the state's game farms have not been subject to much regulation at all. "It's been loosely regulated," Solin said.

Even the DNR, which has in the past been responsible for regulating white-tailed deer farms, has paid only passing attention to game farms, Solin said. He said the agency has been lenient with both escapes and fencing standards.

Now, however, the appearance of CWD in the state has altered the landscape.

The DNR is no longer in the business of overseeing deer farms. The Department of Agriculture, which has in the past been responsible only for regulating elk farms, will be regulating both elk and deer farms beginning in January. That's another reason why many in the DNR are paying such close attention to the proposed rule changes.

"The reality," Mytton said, "is that the Department of Agriculture has to listen to the DNR on some of these concerns."

There are somewhere around 980 elk and deer farms in Wisconsin, according to the DNR. Of those, about 610 are white-tailed deer farms with about 17,500 animals. There are about 370 elk and non-native deer farms with around 17,700 animals.

Most of the farms, according to Solin, are either for hunting or the production of antlers, which are sold primarily for nutritional supplements. But there are also numerous petting zoos and hobby operations, he said.

Among the major provisions of the proposed rule, which is almost identical to an emergency CWD rule approved earlier:

* No deer or elk, wild or domestic, can be imported into Wisconsin without proof that it comes from a herd that has been free of CWD for five years.

* No live deer or elk can be shipped off farms unless the herd is enrolled in the Wisconsin herd-monitoring program for at least a year.

* All farm-raised deer or elk 16 months or older would need to be tested for CWD if they are shipped to slaughter or die or are slaughtered on the farm.

* Herds with any positive CWD tests would be quarantined and may be condemned with indemnity paid to the owner.

Most criticism focuses on the proposed program not being mandatory. Mytton and Solin argue that the program is identical to the emergency rule, which requires testing only if an animal is shipped for slaughter. Under the emergency rule, Solin said, only about 150 farms are enrolled in the monitoring program. And Julie Langenberg, a wildlife veterinarian with the DNR, said less than 10 percent of the state's game farms did any CWD testing at all under the emergency rule.

"That's a hard reality to face," Langenberg told members of the state Natural Resources Board last month.

Mytton said hundreds of farms will end up not testing under the proposed rules. He pointed out, for example, that white-tailed deer that die at small petting zoos and are simply disposed of on the property would not require testing under the program.

Clarence Siroky, state veterinarian, said a completely mandatory program is not practical.

"That's idealistic," Siroky said. "It sounds like a good idea but it's not practical. Our society is not a Gestapo-like society. We depend on people's cooperation."

And Jim Pankow, president of the Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmers Association, disagreed that the proposed rule is voluntary. He said that commercial operators who want to remain in business must participate.

"I don't look at this as a voluntary program," Pankow said. "Any animal that leaves the premises has to be tested."

Fencing is another issue. The new rules do not require double-fencing, which Mytton and others argue is necessary to keep wild deer from nose-to-nose contact with captive animals. In addition, the responsibility for enforcing what fencing standards do exist rests with local town officials. It's unlikely, Solin said, that such an enforcement approach will work.

"I bet you could interview 50 town chairmen," Solin said, "and they wouldn't know they have that responsibility."

Fencing is an important issue, according to Solin, because there are frequent escapes from game farms, increasing the chance that disease could spread.

At the Natural Resources Board meeting last month, Langenberg said there were at least 24 documented escapes from game farms in the last two years and that, she said, "is just the tip of the iceberg." Most escapes, she added, go unreported.

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