State officials said Wednesday they recently learned that several deer escaped in March from a northern Walworth County deer farm that is known to have harbored at least one deer with chronic wasting disease.

The DNR has dispatched wardens to a game farm owned by James Hirschboeck of the Town of Troy in the hope of finding and killing the deer, which are believed to be roaming in the wild.

Hirschboeck is also under investigation, accused of trying to sell deer that had been quarantined and could not be moved, an affidavit filed for a search warrant in Dane County says.

The affidavit also says Hirschboeck is suspected in the past four weeks of trying to entice another deer farm operator with whom he had done business to falsify records.

In an interview, Hirschboeck denied any wrongdoing. “None of that is true,” he said.

Warden Karl Brooks said the escapes of “several” deer took place in March – shortly after the fatal deer disease was first reported in the wild deer population near Mount Horeb in Dane County.

This is the first admission by state officials that deer have escaped from a game farm tainted by the disease.

The escaped deer are believed to have tags in their ears. Neighbors have reported seeing deer with ear tags near Hirschboeck’s 80-acre farm, Brooks said.

In addition to efforts to kill the tagged deer, Brooks said, an estimated 500 deer that will be killed and tested this hunting season in Walworth County will help determine whether the fatal brain disease has moved to a new part of the state.

Officials Monitor Farm

Hirschboeck’s farm came under scrutiny by the DNR after it was discovered that he bought deer from another Walworth County deer farm that is suspected to have sold a deer to a third farm in Portage County that later tested positive for the disease. That buck, sold to deer farmer Stan Hall, tested positive for the disease in September.

The buck was the first of two captive deer in Wisconsin to have tested positive. So far, 40 wild deer from a 411-square-mile region of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties have been found with the disease.

The first finding in captive deer last month prompted the state agriculture department to quarantine the two farms in Walworth County and a third farm in Portage County. A fourth game farm in Dane County has been quarantined, as well.

On Oct. 16, it was learned that a deer on the Hirschboeck farm also tested positive after state investigators found deer there appearing to be in poor health.

As the DNR began investigating Hirschboeck’s business dealings, they recently learned that some of his deer had escaped. Brooks said the DNR believes the deer that tested positive on his farm was there long enough to have intermingled with the escaped deer.

“This is extremely significant because it confirms our fears that CWD might not be as easily contained as we initially had hoped,” Brooks said.

Source Uncertain

Wisconsin officials are not sure how the disease showed up in Wisconsin, but one theory points to the possibility of an infected game farm. Game farms routinely moved deer in and out of the state until the agriculture department effectively banned such shipments in March.

When the presence of chronic wasting disease was reported Feb. 28, it was the first time deer with chronic wasting disease – captive or wild – had been found east of the Mississippi River.

The finding has thrust deer hunting in Wisconsin into tumult as hunters wonder how widely the disease has spread and whether venison is safe to eat. One effect: License sales are down about 23% from the same time last year.

The DNR has said it believed the disease is contained in and around the 411-square-mile region, where it wants to kill as many as 25,000 deer this hunting season.

Experts also have indicated that venison should be safe to eat, and as recently as last week, Dennis Maki, an infectious disease expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said finding the abnormal protein that is believed to cause the disease in meat was remote.

The World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer suspected of having the disease or the brain, eyes, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes or spinal cord of any deer.

As part of its investigation, the DNR said that Hirschboeck:

* Asked Hall to alter his deer farm records twice in the past four weeks. * Tried to convince another game farm operator, Michael E. Bischel of Helenville in Jefferson County, to subvert the quarantine. Bischel told the DNR that Hirschboeck suggested that he buy a large buck from Hirschboeck, kill it, bind its front and back hooves, and then saw off its antlers so wardens would not recognize it.

Hirschboeck denied both allegations and said he has cooperated fully with the DNR and the agriculture department.

* Sold six does to Bischel in January but did not provide any receipts. Hirschboeck said he sold deer to Bischel but was never paid. Bischel could not be reached for comment. * Was not registered to operate a game farm in 2001 and faces forfeitures totaling $1,033. * Was issued five citations totaling $1,002.50 for feeding wild game and failing to cleaning up the feed after being ordered to do so.