Officials discuss Wisconsin CWD testing strategy

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State, federal, private officials map strategy for CWD testing

May 31, 2002

By Sarah Wyatt/Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. -- State officials are catching criticism for going too slow as they try to determine what regulatory hurdles private companies must jump to provide hunters with tests of their deer for chronic wasting disease.

Officials from a dozen private companies attended a Department of Natural Resources meeting Thursday, saying they were interested in getting the equipment, permission and disease control samples needed to provide testing for the deadly brain disease.

But aside from a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit that allows qualified labs to receive samples of chronic wasting disease, officials said they do not know which additional state or federal laws -- if any -- must be followed before labs can begin to offer the tests.

The labs would need to disclose that no test is a 100 percent guarantee that a deer is free of chronic wasting disease.

Butch Johnson, of Wildlife Support Services in Hayward, said he is willing to start testing as soon as possible, but does not want to invest in the testing before he knows what is required.

"I want to know whether I should buy $650,000 of equipment," he said.

"We want to know what we can do to get going, and I haven't heard that from anyone around the table," Johnson said. "That's all I want, so that we can start buying equipment and start training people and do it right."

Providing tests to hunters is critical because deer hunting is a long-standing tradition in Wisconsin that provides millions of tourism and tax dollars and helps control the state's large deer herd, state Natural Resources Board Chairman Trygve Solberg said.

"The hunters are absolutely going to demand this," Solberg said. "We need to restore some public confidence."

In a survey of 3,097 people who attended public meetings about chronic wasting disease or filled out a questionnaire on the Internet, 41 percent said they would be willing to pay a lab fee to have their deer tested, 20 percent said they would not, and 38 percent were either undecided or said the question did not apply to them.

Hunters would be responsible for at least some of the cost of the tests, which state officials have said could cost more than $100 to perform. In the survey, the average hunter said the most he would pay was $30.

Some officials contend the urgency over testing for hunters has been overblown, since there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease poses a public health threat.

"It seems to me that the hunting population has almost been whipped into a frenzy about the need for testing on their animals," said Dr. Robert Shull, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory. "If I shot what looked to be a healthy deer, would I eat it? You bet I would."

Eighteen deer killed in the Mount Horeb area have tested positive for the disease, which causes deer to waste away and die. It was the first time the disease appeared east of the Mississippi River.

State officials want to kill all the estimated 15,000 deer in the 361-square-mile hot zone where the infected deer where discovered.

The state is currently sending deer tissue samples from that area to a federal laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and is pursuing research testing at the state lab.

There is currently no concrete plan for how to provide testing for hunters, although state officials say private labs would help provide the tens of thousands of tests that would likely be requested.

While current chronic wasting disease tests are very effective in determining whether the disease is present in a particular area, there is no guarantee that deer that test negative do not have some early form of the disease, said Dr. Mark Hall, a veterinarian with the National Veterinary Services Laboratory.

"There are currently no tests available that are designed for food safety," he said. "People need to know there is no evidence it's a public health risk, but that testing does not guarantee public safety."

The USDA is focusing its resources on eradicating the disease, not providing testing for hunters, Hall said.

"It's not a direction they're going to go in, nor will they even support that," he said, noting that Wisconsin officials have control over how to spend the state's resources.

Tom Hauge, the DNR's wildlife management director, said Wisconsin officials are committed to give hunters the chance to have their deer tested for the deadly brain disease, even if the known health risk is very minimal.

In another development, an industry group said Thursday that testing every deer or elk that dies on a game farm for chronic wasting disease is not practical or possible.

"We're going to support rules that are based on science, not on what's going to make people feel good," said Jim Pankow, president of the Wisconsin Deer and Elk Farmer's Association. He said the group supports new emergency rules that require farmers to test any deer or elk carcasses that are to be moved off farms or sent to slaughter.
 

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