State faulted for ignoring deer disease

State faulted for ignoring deer disease

March 11, 2002 Capital Times by Rob Zaleski

It was, he predicted last fall, just a matter of time.

Local activist John Stauber said Wisconsin had failed to take the proper precautionary steps to prevent chronic wasting disease - a fatal brain ailment found in deer and elk - from making its way to this state. And because Wisconsin had failed to act, it was all but inevitable that the disease would one day show up here, he said.

"I think we're watching a horrible train wreck in slow motion. And our bureaucrats are either sitting on their hands or passing the peanuts," grumbled Stauber, who urged state officials to impose a moratorium on the importation of game farm animals, as a Department of Natural Resources staffer had recommended in a controversial memo back in 1998.

So suffice it to say that Stauber wasn't at all surprised when the DNR reported last week that three deer killed in the town of Vermont in November had been diagnosed with the disease.

Neither was Judd Aiken, an animal health specialist at the University of Wisconsin, who also had expressed fear last year that chronic wasting disease, or CWD - a cousin of "mad cow" disease, the grisly illness that infected millions of cattle and killed more than 90 people in Great Britain - would find its way here.

But while he wasn't surprised, Aiken was shaken by the ramifications.

"It's potentially a huge wildlife disease issue and one that's likely to be with us for a long time," he says. "Since this disease does transmit among animals, it's reasonable to assume it's going to increase in range and severity."

Stauber, who five years ago co-authored the book "Mad Cow USA," was even more dismayed.

"This is going to be the most expensive and difficult wildlife disease problem this state has ever faced," he says. "It's one hell of a mess."

The biggest question, of course, is whether the disease presents a human health hazard.

Not likely, says Aiken, who agrees with state wildlife officials who say there's not a shred of evidence to suggest that CWD can be transmitted to people.

Stauber, however, says that's simply not true.

He notes that test tube experiments performed by Dr. Byron Caughey at the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana have shown that prions taken from the brains of CWD-infected deer and elk can, in fact, convert normal human prions into deadly prions. The rates were extremely low, but transmission was possible.

"Now, what's going to happen in the real world - how long it will be before we actually have proof whether or not CWD is moving into people - we don't know," Stauber says. "But to conclude that it can't happen is wishful thinking."

So what does the state do now?

Exactly what the DNR announced it plans to do last week, Aiken says. Kill dozens of white-tailed deer in an attempt to find out just how widespread the disease is in the state's overpopulated herd.

Stauber says there are several additional steps the state should take as well: Immediately impose the above-mentioned moratorium on the importation (and exportation) of game farm animals. Require game farms to put high, triple fences around their operations and thoroughly examine each animal in those farms. And the DNR should issue advisories to hunters, warning them that CWD exists in the state and that there's no proof that it can't infect people.

But Stauber doubts the DNR would do such a thing since the money generated from deer licenses provides a big chunk of its budget.

And that's part of the problem here, he maintains.

"Virtually all those making pronouncements have a vested interest in advising the public not to worry. The research community is under tremendous pressure not to make statements that will panic the public. And the meat industry has handled this with lawsuits and propaganda from day one. They're terrified people are going to take this as one more reason to go vegetarian."

Some changes will take place, including health certification of captive wild animals and improved game farm fencing, under new captive wildlife regulations passed by the state Legislature last week. The quick action on the new rules was a direct result of concern about CWD, according to Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, who co-authored the bill.

Whatever the state chooses to do, there is one question that many Wisconsin hunters undoubtedly are asking themselves right now: If you kill a deer, do you eat the meat?

Aiken says he won't answer that question - a response Stauber suggests "speaks for itself" - but says he'd certainly recommend having the deer tested first by the DNR.

And Stauber?

"Well, I'm normally not in the habit of giving advice," he says. "But I'd certainly advise anyone I knew personally to lay off the venison."

Published: 9:20 AM 3/11/02

ah, the cattle industry is just loving every bit of this. takes the heat off them. would it not be prudent to test cattle in sufficient numbers too find, especially since these CWD/TSE deer/elk comingle with the cattle? but, i guess if you don't look, you want have, and thus stay 'BSE-FREE'.

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