The worst thing Wisconsin can do in the face of chronic wasting disease is turn away from hunting deer.

That was the message of several wildlife experts and researchers who spoke at a special forum on chronic wasting disease Monday evening.

About 600 people attended at least part of the four-hour conference, sponsored by the Quality Deer Management Association, at the La Crosse Center. License plates in the parking lot indicated visitors from Iowa and Minnesota as well as Wisconsin.

What they were told was not to panic, or give up on deer hunting.

“I just caution you to go slow and really try to find out what’s happening out there before you make some rash decisions,” said Terry Spraker, a CWD researcher from Colorado State University, where the disease has been present for almost 30 years.

Wisconsin – from government to private sector – relies on revenue from the annual deer hunt, and will need it more than ever as it prepares to assess just how extensive CWD has spread, said Scott Craven, chairman of the University of Wisconsin’s Wildlife Ecology Department.

The state plans to test about 50,000 deer for CWD this fall, a number that if successful would surpass all the deer and elk tested for the disease so far in North America. Samples will be taken from at least 500 deer in each Wisconsin county, and every deer killed in the “intensive management” zone – the 389-square-mile area in Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties where CWD was first confirmed in February – will be tested. The cost and effort to take samples, process tests and dispose of carcasses will be heavy, Craven said. The state is expected to pay an estimated 70 to 80 cents a pound just to cremate the unwanted dead deer, he said. “That’s why I say that anyone who is not willing to at least buy a deer hunting license this year is not a very committed deer hunter,” said Craven.

A University of Wisconsin economist has estimated that if the number of hunters is down by 30 percent this fall, it will cost the state $75 million to $100 million in lost revenue. The effects will be felt in more than lost license fees. Some major meat lockers are refusing to take deer this year, Craven said, after non-hunting customers indicated they would stop buying other meat if the facility processed deer.

Each of the four experts repeatedly emphasized there has been no known instance of chronic wasting disease crossing to humans. But in the public’s mind, Craven noted, “there is a small gap between saying it hasn’t happened and it can’t happen.” “A simple risk assessment is not enough to explain the concern we’re seeing statewide,” he said.

The discovery of CWD in Wisconsin was the first indication of the disease east of the Mississippi River, and has drawn considerable national attention to the disease. “When we worked on the disease, no one cared about it,” noted Spraker, who has studied CWD almost from the time it surfaced there in a captive research herd in the early 1970s. “When you found it, Katy bar the door.”

In 1981, CWD turned up in a wild elk in Rocky Mountain National Park; the first wild deer was found near Fort Collins, not far from where the first captive cases were found. It subsequently appeared in Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, New Mexico, Kansas and Minnesota, though several states have had only single cases in captive animals.

Yet in Colorado, which has had the most cases, hunting has continued and no human has shown signs of being affected. Spraker told of one instance in which a woman involved in a nasty divorce did not tell her then-husband they had a CWD-positive deer until it had been eaten by him and several friends at a dinner party. The group, most of them physicians, showed no ill effects.

“I can tell you, there’s a whole lot of other things more dangerous than CWD,” Spraker said. “I’ve been exposed to it really heavy for 20 years, and at least I can still pronounce most words pretty correctly,” he said.

U.S. Rep Ron Kind of La Crosse, who opened the conference, said he plans to hunt this year, and will eat the venison if it tests negative for CWD. “This may not be as dire as many of us believe right now,” Kind told the group. “I think if we can stick together on this, hopefully we’ll be able to provide some answers.”

© Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance