Game-farm animal is first ill non-deer discovered here

Madison – Chronic wasting disease has been found in a farm-raised elk in Manitowoc County, marking the first time in Wisconsin that the ailment has been found in an animal other than a deer, state officials said Tuesday.

A 6-year-old female elk, one of 20 imported by Valders elk farmer Eugene Sperber from Stearns County, Minn., tested positive for the the fatal brain disease after dying in a fight with another elk.

Sperber’s herd was quarantined by state agriculture officials in September, when state animal health officials discovered that it may have been exposed to the disease, which has been found in the state’s white-tailed deer population.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health reported in August that an elk from an Aitkin County farm in northern Minnesota tested positive for the disease. That animal had also spent time on two other farms, including the one in Stearns County.

That prompted Wisconsin officials to track other animals from those farms that may have entered Wisconsin game farms. They found 32 animals on six farms, and all were quarantined, including those on Sperber’s farm.

Sperber, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, imported the 20 elk in December 2000 and January 2001.

One of the imported elk died earlier and was not tested for the disease, and all of the remaining 18 imported elk were killed for testing Friday, before the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, reported Monday that one elk tested positive for the disease.

Test results on the other animals are pending, said Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the state agriculture department.

The fate of Stearns’ other 180 elk, which did not come from Minnesota but are under quarantine, has not been decided.

“We’re concerned for the deer and elk industry, and for this particular farmer,” Gilson said. “It’s a really tough situation to be in after a year that’s been difficult for deer and elk farmers in general. It’s been hard for them economically and emotionally.”

First in the region

Tuesday’s news marked the first time that chronic wasting disease has been discovered in the northeastern part of the state. A total of 80 diseased deer have been found in Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland counties; and seven infected deer were discovered on game farms in Walworth and Portage counties.

Sarah Shapiro Hurley, a Department of Natural Resources veterinarian, said wildlife officials are monitoring the situation in Manitowoc County closely, but don’t believe it poses a threat to the deer population there.

“Free-ranging and captive animals do have areas of interface, but we don’t have any reason to believe that we have anything going on in the wild herd that is connected with that situation in the captive herd,” she said.

DNR and state agriculture officials will continue to evaluate the case and monitor information from Manitowoc County, Hurley added. There were no immediate plans to shoot and test any more wild deer in response to the latest finding, she said.

“We took a very adequate sample in Manitowoc County this fall,” she said, referring to the more than 200 samples – none of them showing infection – taken during the annual hunt.

Game farms under scrutiny

Wisconsin imposed emergency restrictions on moving animals to and from game farms in April 2002 to curb the spread of the disease. Chronic wasting disease attacks the brains of the animals, causing them to become emaciated, act abnormally and eventually die.

Dan Gunderson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Commercial Elk and Deer Farmers Association, said the discovery is a difficult one for the Sperbers.

“This is not only a financial loss, but it’s almost like losing part of your family, and the loss is taken personally,” said Gunderson, in a telephone interview after he visited the farm.

Gunderson said the discovery also shows that farmers, working in tandem with state agriculture officials, have established an effective monitoring plan.

“It’s a bad-news, good-news story,” he said. “All of their elk, even though they didn’t all come from Minnesota, are quarantined until 2006. It’s a business tragedy, but the good news is the system under which the department of agriculture is regulating it works.”

Gilson said agency officials were not surprised that the disease turned up in a farm-raised elk here, especially considering the animal’s history in Minnesota.

“It’s been primarily a disease of elk out west and, in the wild, in mule deer, but on farms it’s been an elk disease there,” she said. “We weren’t as surprised as we were disappointed.”

Gunderson said the finding means that farmers need to be watchful and keep working with state officials.

Gilson added that animal health investigators now will attempt to trace the movements of elk from the Valders farm to other locations, she added.

“The DNR found chronic wasting disease because it went looking for it,” she said.