Ask Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett … …about Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin White-tailed Deer

Editor’s Note: this is another of several summer and fall updates in which the DNR Secretary will try to answer some of the many questions and concerns related to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Wisconsin.

This week, I’m turning my pen over to Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to answer your questions about farm-raised deer. DATCP plays an important role in CWD management by overseeing farmed deer and elk in Wisconsin and monitoring for and reporting any CWD found in these animals. DATCP has been a critical partner from the time CWD was discovered in Wisconsin wild deer, and the agency’s continuing cooperation and involvement in containing this disease is invaluable.

How big is the farm-raised deer industry in Wisconsin?

Farm-raised deer are a relatively small segment of Wisconsin agriculture. We have 724 deer and elk farms registered, with about 30,500 animals on those farms. That compares with 16,000 dairy farms and 1.9 million dairy cows and heifers.

Farmers buy their animals from breeders or other farmers, or breed their own animals. It is no longer legal to take in orphaned or injured deer from the wild. Nor is it legal to fence in property, thereby capturing deer, and pay the Department of Natural Resources for them. Although most deer farms keep elk and/or whitetails, there are other breeds, too: red deer, sika deer, fallow deer and reindeer.

What rules govern these farms?

Deer farms are among the most highly regulated agricultural operations in Wisconsin. Besides the registration requirement, these are the major regulations that govern them:

  • CWD monitoring – Deer and elk cannot move off farms unless they are enrolled in the CWD monitoring programs. This means in order to function as a business they must be enrolled. Enrollment demands an initial herd census with official animal identification and annual reports accounting for where every single animal on the farm came from or went in the past year. There are 550 herds enrolled in the monitoring program. Those that have not enrolled are mostly hobby farms or hunting preserves, neither of which ships live animals.

  • CWD Testing – Every deer or elk 16 months or older that dies on a Wisconsin farm or goes to slaughter must be tested for CWD. This includes herds that are not enrolled in the monitoring program. To date, we have tested nearly 8,380 farm-raised deer and elk.

  • Tuberculosis Testing – Deer and elk herds must have annual TB tests if the owner sells live animals other than for slaughter.

  • Imports – Deer and elk imported into Wisconsin require official identification numbers, a permit from the State Veterinarian, a certificate of veterinary inspection, proof that they are free of TB, and documentation that they come from a herd with no signs of CWD in the past five years. This last requirement amounts to a temporary moratorium on many deer and elk imports because most states did not begin surveillance until CWD hit Wisconsin and showed that it was not just a disease “out West.”

  • Escapes – Deer and elk farmers are required to meet fencing standards. DATCP inspectors do visit farms and DNR conservation wardens keep an eye out, too. We certainly welcome reports from citizens when fences are down or gates open. Producers are required to report escapes within 48 hours. The DNR has authority to kill escaped farm-raised animals, which are not immediately recaptured.

  • Feed – Deer feed, like cattle feed, is subject to a federal ban on most proteins from mammals. This is based on the theory that prions might be present in these proteins. Prions are the cause of CWD.

How prevalent is CWD among Wisconsin’s farm-raised deer?

From those 8,380 tests I mentioned, we have found 16 cases of CWD on Wisconsin farms: eight whitetails on a Portage County hunting preserve; six whitetails from a Walworth County farm that we believe came from the same source as the Portage County animal; one whitetail each on a farm in Sauk County and in Racine County; and one elk in a Manitowoc County farm that came from an infected herd in Minnesota. All those herds, except the one in Portage County, have been destroyed and indemnified as prescribed by state statutes. We have ordered destruction of the Portage County herd; the owner is contesting the order and the animals remain under quarantine.

We currently have 14 herds under quarantine because they contain animals that may have been exposed to CWD. In some cases, the owners bought animals from herds later found to be infected with CWD while others are within Wisconsin’s CWD zone and may have been exposed to infected free-ranging deer.

Isn’t it likely that CWD came from farm-raised deer?

We are unlikely to ever know how CWD came to our state. Its long incubation period makes it virtually impossible to trace. The best thing we – DNR and DATCP – can do is to continue to work together, using the best science available to stop the disease in the wild and on farms.