CWD found in northwest Wisconsin deer
MADISON Chronic wasting disease has leapt into far northwestern Wisconsin despite a decade-long battle to keep the deadly deer ailment contained in the southwestern corner of the state, wildlife officials said Monday.
Department of Natural Resources Lands Division Administrator Kurt Thiede said test results have confirmed a doe found in the wild just outside Shell Lake last fall was infected.
The discovery threatens to send a new round of shockwaves through Wisconsin’s $1 billion hunting industry and further strain the Department of Natural Resources’ relationship with hunters and landowners who never bought into the agency’s strategies to contain the disease when it first turned up in southern Wisconsin—including Walworth County—in 2002.
“This is the DNR and the sportsmen’s worst nightmare,” said Larry Bonde, vice chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy. “CWD has caused such a stir in the hunting community. The relationship between the KNR and landowners got so damaged. Now moving to a whole new part of the state, it could re-spark some of that discontent.”
Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), chairman of the state Senate’s natural resources committee, urged the DNR not to repeat the same mistakes.
“We had a knee-jerk reaction initially. They lost the trust of the hunters of the state when they asked them to be killers rather than managers of the herd,” Kedzie said. “I don’t see that happening this time around. Cooler heads will prevail.”
Chronic wasting disease produces microscopic holes in animals’ brain tissue, causing weight loss, tremors, strange behavior and eventually, death. It was discovered in Wisconsin near Mount Horeb in 2002, marking the first time it had been found east of the Mississippi River. Fear of the disease dampened hunting efforts dramatically that year, as 70,000 fewer people purchased hunting licenses than in 2001.
Realizing one of Wisconsin’s signature traditions was in jeopardy, the DNR launched a multi-million dollar effort to slow the disease’s spread. The agency asked hunters and landowners to kill as many deer as possible in the infection zone, offering discounted licenses and extra season and even employing its own sharpshooters.
Many hunters, though, thought the DNR had set an impossible goal and had asked them to slaughter deer for no reason. A 2006 state audit found the deer population in the disease zone had grown since the DRN began its efforts. A report Texas-based deer research James Kroll produced for the state last week concluded the eradication plan resulted in a “serious erosion” of public confidence in the agency.
Still, the disease remained contained in southern Wisconsin and license sales rebounded slightly during the rest of the decade as CWD faded from the headlines. The discovery of the infected Shell Lake does promises to thrust the issue back into the public eye.
Looking to stave off another wave of public anger and fear, DNR officials immediately issued a statement reassuring hunters the agency didn’t plan to make any changes to this fall’s hunting seasons. They promised to begin an intensive sampling effort, collecting deer road kill for testing and asking bow and gun hunters within a 10-mile radius of the doe to run in tissue samples this fall.
They also warned residents in Washburn, Barron, Burnett and Polk counties to expect a ban on baiting and feeding deer this fall. State law requires the agency to enact such a ban in any county within 10 miles of any deer that tests positive for the disease.
Thiede said someone contacted the Washburn County Sheriff’s Department on opening day of the November 2011 gun hunt to report a deer on private land that looked sick and had lost patches of its hair, Thiede said. He didn’t have any information on who filed the report.
A sheriff’s deputy killed the animal and DNR field staff took the head for sampling, but staff at the agency’s Madison headquarters didn’t receive it until late February, Thiede said.
Tests at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in early March came back positive for chronic wasting disease. The National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, confirmed those results Friday evening, Thiede said.
DNR investigators plan to backtrack through the timeline to fill in missing details and try to figure out how the disease found its way so far north.
“Anytime you’ve got a disease or anything that affects something in this state as popular as deer hunting, we’ll find out…exactly what’s occurring,” Thiede said.
Hunters have speculated for ears that an infected deer may have escaped from a deer farm or game preserve and introduced the disease to the wild herd, although that remains an unproven theory.
Washburn County is home to three game farms and a hunting preserve, according to state agriculture officials. Two deer have escaped from two separate farms, one in 2004 and one in 2006, but the state considers all the farms and the preserve to be in good standing, said Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection spokeswoman Donna Gilson.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the DNR must try to cull the herd in northwestern Wisconsin. That’s a tough order, he said, since state lawmakers last year outlawed the agency’s polarizing earn-a-buck program, a herd control technique which required hunters to kill does before taken bucks. Hunters generally hated the program, saying it forced them to pass up trophy kills, but Meyer said the DNR’s most powerful tools.
“You have to make a fundamental choice to protect the deer herd or not,” Meyer said.