Four-year-old memo warned of CWD on Wisconsin game farms


Mar 11, 2001
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Four-year-old memo warned of deer disease

Steve Tomasko, The Daily Press (Ashland, Wisc.)

May 16th, 2002

With the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease-infected deer in Wisconsin, the issue became a priority for natural resource mangers. However, a 1998 Department of Natural Resources memorandum warned of the danger of chronic wasting disease and advocated tighter regulations on importation of deer into the state.

Chronic wasting disease was found earlier this year in 14 deer shot near Mount Horeb, the first time the disease was found east of the Mississippi River. Chronic wasting disease is a neurologic disease of elk and deer. It attacks the brains, causing the animals to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die.

Since no one yet knows how CWD got into the wild deer herd in the state, the question remains open if regulating deer and elk farms four years ago would have prevented the disease from reaching the state.

"It's not good for me to speculate on that," said Steven Miller, DNR administrator of division of lands and author of the memo. "We don't know how the disease was brought into the state. The fact that it jumped 700, 800 miles, maybe there was some help from humans, but we really don't know."

Guesses as to how the disease got here range widely: CWD could have been brought in from infected carcasses killed out west and dumped in the state, infected live animals imported to farms, or someone trying to "improve" the genetics of Wisconsin deer. Miller said some have speculated CWD could have been brought in by a truck that hit an infected animal in the west.

Miller said he wrote the memo four years ago after talking with colleagues in western states that had been dealing with CWD for a number of years. He had also attended a workshop on CWD and thought the state should take a proactive approach to preventing the disease from entering the state.

In part, that memo states, "...Montana Fish and Wildlife feels a moratorium on the importation of all game farm animals is warranted until an adequate test for this disease is developed. Based upon what I have learned of this disease, I agree with Montana and would recommend the same for Wisconsin. At present it appears this would be the only way to help assure the disease does not spread into Wisconsin."

However, that advice never made it past early meetings with the Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, which regulates deer farms.

"That message was not received well," said former DNR Secretary George Meyer, now a visiting professor at Lawrence University in Appleton.

DATCP put together a task force that included members of the deer farm industry.

"The industry thought we were trying to put them out of business," Meyer said. "That clearly was not the case."

He said state veterinarian Clarence Siroky was getting a lot of heat from the industry about imposing new regulations.

At that time, the industry said they would do voluntary testing for CWD. However, out of the 947 deer and elk farms in the state, Meyer said only about 30 percent signed up for the program.

Siroky agreed the industry did not welcome the idea of more regulations at that time.

"You're going to have a difficult time convincing people of the need for more regulations," he said.

Siroky said they thought they could more easily deal with the issue through more education.

Now, however, emergency rules put into place in early April are likely harsher than what could have come about in 1998. The rules heavily restrict the movement of deer and elk into, out of and within the state.

Eugene Flees, deer farmer and vice president of Whitetails Of Wisconsin, an association of about 220 state deer farmers, said the measures are appropriate.

"Until you figure out what's happening, and get a clearer picture, the logical thing to do is step back," Flees said.

It will, however, hurt some farmers, he said.

Flees said the 1998 memorandum was not accepted by a lot of people in the industry, especially whitetail farmers.

Flees said there has never been a case of CWD in farm-raised whitetails in the United States. All recorded cases have been in wild herds.

Also, "the state of Wisconsin, as far as whitetail deer are concerned, is an export state. Twenty deer go out for every one that comes in," he said.

Flees said he would be surprised to find any farm-raised whitetail deer infected with CWD in the state, unless they've been co-raised with elk, which are more susceptible.

Vice president of the Wisconsin Deer and Elk Farmer's Association Wes Ramage agreed with Flees that the rules are appropriate but will hurt some farmers.

"It's something we understand and support," he said.

He and many others in his association have been testing for CWD in their herds since 1998. It's simply good business practice for those who export animals out of state, he said.

Now, however, "there's people signing up left and right," Ramage said.

Currently, DATCP has been soliciting comments from the industry on permanent rules, Ramage said, and they will hold a public meeting in Madison May 22.

As discussions on permanent rules go on, the DNR has begun its part in a plan to kill all of the estimated 15,000 deer in a 287-square mile area of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties to stem the spread of the disease to other parts of the state.

However, the question of how the disease became a part of the state's landscape may likely never be answered.

"It should be a wake up call for other states to start testing," Miller said.

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