State finds violations, lax record keeping at many sites, report says

A state inspection of private deer farms, prompted by the discovery of chronic wasting disease, found that 436 white-tailed deer escaped into the wild, officials said Tuesday

The Department of Natural Resources found that captive deer have escaped from one-third of the state’s 550 deer farms over the lifetime of the operations. The agency also uncovered hundreds of violations and has sought a total of 60 citations or charges against deer farm operators.

These and other findings come as state officials say they are still no closer to understanding how the fatal deer disease got to Wisconsin.

Since the discovery a little more than a year ago, chronic wasting disease has thrown both deer hunting and management of Wisconsin’s 1.4 million deer herd into tumult. Fewer hunters went into the woods last year, and a booming deer population has the DNR worried that the number of whitetails could grow out of control.

Tuesday’s findings were presented to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The DNR had regulated deer farms, but the authority was transferred to the Agriculture Department on Jan. 1. Now agriculture regulators oversee elk, deer and other captive cervids.

Solving the problem

Stricter regulations – and closer attention to the operations of game farms – should cut down on future violations, officials from the two agencies said. Tougher reporting requirements also will help authorities keep better track of the movement of animals, they said.

Permanent rules take effect in June, and include tighter controls on moving animals and requiring the reporting of escaped animals within 48 hours. There will be mandatory testing of every deer age 16 months or older that dies.

Almost from the start of the state’s battle against chronic wasting disease, game farm operators came under scrutiny because their business involves the buying and selling of captive deer and elk across state lines. When the disease was first discovered here Feb. 28, 2002, Wisconsin became the first state to have the disease east of the Mississippi River.

A representative of the deer industry said Tuesday that the DNR is trying to shift blame for chronic wasting disease to his industry.

“The state of Wisconsin has spent a year chasing chronic wasting disease, and they have made zero progress,” said Gary Nelson, president of Whitetails of Wisconsin. “In the past, they have essentially collected our fees and ignored us. Now that they have discovered CWD, they are looking for someone to blame.”

A DNR representative agreed that the agency could have done a better job keeping tabs on deer farms.

“We’re not pointing fingers,” said Karl Brooks, a conservation warden with the DNR. “But two things that we know for sure is that there is CWD in the wild deer population, and we have found CWD on game farms.”

CWD found on 2 farms

Seven deer have tested positive for the disease on game farms – one on a Portage County farm and six on a Walworth County farm – since the disease was discovered in three wild deer killed near Mount Horeb in western Dane County. One deer that tested positive on the Walworth County farm escaped and roamed free for six months.

Regulations have only begun to catch up to the captive deer industry, and “unfortunately, it took CWD to get us there,” said agriculture secretary Rod Nilsestuen at a news briefing in Madison.

As the DNR prepared to hand over authority for overseeing game farms to the agriculture department, it sent 209 conservation wardens to 550 farms to collect information, attempt to pinpoint the source of the disease and to learn whether other deer had been exposed to it.

The audit found that most farms were in compliance, but the DNR found many violations and instances of poor record keeping. Also in numerous instances, fences did not stop wild and captive deer from intermingling.

At least 227 farms conducted part of their business on a cash basis, making it hard to track animal movement with financial records.

For example, both the Internal Revenue Service and the state Department of Revenue have been contacted about a deer farm near Wild Rose in Waushara County that is suspected of selling six large bucks for $45,000 in cash and not using live deer shipping tags as required.

The DNR found that game farm operators have more deer in captivity than their records show, which is “due in part because the owners of a number of large deer farm operations were unable to accurately count the number of deer within their fences,” the audit found.

Hundreds of deer escape

The DNR found a total of 671 deer that escaped farms – 436 of which were never found – because of storm-damaged fences, gates being left open or the animals jumping over or through fences.

In one example in Kewaunee County, a deer farmer’s fence was knocked down in a summer storm. Ten deer escaped, and the farmer told the DNR he had no intention of trying to reclaim them. The DNR found five of the deer, killed them and cited the farmer for violation of a regulation related to fencing.

Another deer farmer near Mishicot, in Manitowoc County, released all nine of his whitetails last summer after he believed the discovery of chronic wasting disease was going to drive down the market for captive deer.

The DNR found 24 instances of unlicensed deer farms and issued 19 citations.

Journal Sentinel correspondent Kevin Murphy contributed to this report.

Game Farms Inspected

A summary of the findings of the Department of Natural Resources’ inspection of 550 private white-tailed deer farms in the state: The deer farms contained at least 16,070 deer, but the DNR believes there are more deer in captivity than that because large deer farms are unable to accurately count their deer. 671 deer had escaped from game farms, including 436 that were never found.

24 farmers were unlicensed. One had been operating illegally since 1999 after he was denied a license because his deer fence did not meet minimum specifications.

Records maintained by operators ranged from “meticulous documentation to relying on memory.” At least 227 farms conducted various portions of their deer farm business with cash. Over the last three years, 1,222 deer died on farms for various reasons. Disease testing was not performed nor required on the majority of deer. Farmers reported doing business with people in 22 other states and one Canadian province.