Protecting Wisconsin's public health and its deer herd

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Falk: Any risk with dumping deer?

5/08/02

Ron Seely Environment reporter, Wisconsin State Journal

A Dane County task force is being proposed to study the implications of the chronic wasting disease outbreak in deer - especially the possibility of dumping more than 2 million pounds of deer carcasses in a county landfill.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said Wednesday she is encouraging the County Board to approve a resolution creating the task force. The proposal will be considered by the board's executive committee tonight and, if approved, could be voted on by the entire board next Thursday.

Falk said she is proposing the group because of the "tremendous challenge" of coping with the fatal brain disease, which has been diagnosed in 14 deer in western Dane County. Wildlife biologists with the state Department of Natural Resources say their computer models show that, left unchecked, the disease could decimate southern Wisconsin's deer herd within 10 years.

"I have two goals," Falk said, "to protect public health and to protect our deer herd."

Falk said discussions with the DNR will explore the safety of placing the dead deer in a landfill.

"Do we need to worry about the carcasses leaking through the membrane of the landfill?" Falk asked. "Or our groundwater becoming contaminated?"

The task force would work with the DNR and other agencies responding to the disease as well as provide a forum for public concerns.

Brett Hulsey, one of the County Board supervisors who will introduce the task force resolution, said dealing with the disease will require some tough choices - chief among them deciding whether to allow the disposal of possibly diseased deer in the Dane County Landfill.

The DNR has proposed killing 15,000 deer in the 287-square-mile area where the disease was found. The agency has been negotiating with the county to dispose of the deer in the landfill east of Madison. Hulsey said more than 2 million pounds of deer may need to be disposed of in the landfill.

Among the questions that need to be answered, Falk said, is whether the carcasses pose a public health risk. Although researchers have yet to show a link between CWD and disease in humans, a similar disease in livestock did pass to humans in England.

The illness is caused by a rogue protein called a prion that can convert other, healthy proteins into diseased proteins. The diseased proteins then aggregate and destroy brain tissue.

Gary Johnson, public health manager for Dane County, said the problem is that prions are very hard to destroy and have been shown to linger for years. He said England's experience with mad cow disease, a similar prion disease that did pass to humans and killed more than 100 people, should be an example. Just as with CWD here in the states, Johnson said, people were told mad cow disease wasn't a human health threat.

"People were saying the same thing," Johnson said, "and taking more comfort from that than they should have. We don't want to be too confident about this given that what we don't know may come back to hurt us later."
 

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