MADISON, Wis. – Scott Hassett, newly-appointed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary, doesn’t plan to change the department’s approach to fighting chronic wasting disease, even though five deer outside the Eradication Zone have tested positive for the fatal deer and elk disease.
One of those deer was killed near Muscoda in Richland County, about three miles north of the Wisconsin River and 50 miles southeast of La Crosse during the 2002 gun-deer season.
“We’re not going to declare those areas part of the Eradication Zone yet, at least not until all the test results are in from the state, which won’t be until the end of March, ” Hassett said. “It’s still a hold-your-breath and cross-your-fingers thing to see if there are any positives elsewhere in the state outside the eradication zone.”
If deer test positive for CWD in other areas of Wisconsin, Hassett said the state may have to go to another plan. For now, however, landowners around areas in the CWD Management Zone (Richland and Iowa counties) where the five positive samples were found may obtain deer permits to kill more deer for sampling.
Landowners within the Eradication Zone are also permitted to use bait for purposes of attracting and shooting deer during February and March. Baiting deer elsewhere in the state is illegal. Feeding deer is illegal statewide.
As of last Friday, 12,586 of the 38,718 tissue samples from the 2002 gun deer seasons have been analyzed. Many of the analyzed samples have been from outside the Eradication Zone. Most samples from within the Eradication Zone will be analyzed last.
Some county samples have been analyzed from Buffalo (105), Crawford (67), Jackson (11), La Crosse (84), Monroe (99), Richland (564), Trempealeau (37) and Vernon (66). A sample in Richland County was the only one that tested CWD positive. More samples are being processed in each of these counties and elsewhere in the state. New test results are posted on the DNR web site every Friday at www.dnr.state.wi.us.
In addition to not changing the approach in the fight against CWD, Hassett isn’t making any changes within the CWD management team. Tom Hauge will remain the CWD project leader. Randy Stark, however, is the new chief warden, replacing Tom Harelson, who retired recently.
The warden staff, under Stark, continues to work on leads to determine how CWD was introduced into Wisconsin. The DNR is also working on a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to determine which agency is responsible for certain aspects of CWD management. Much of the responsibility for regulating the state’s deer and elk farms is being transferred to the DATCP, according to Stark, because of legislation passed last year.
“We’re still working on leads from our initial investigation, but we can’t go out and conduct new investigations on deer farms until the MOU with DATCP is worked out,” Stark said. “This is an important area, however, because 22 percent of the deer farms in the West-Central Region reported escapes when we surveyed them last year.”
Hassett said he didn’t think about the significance of the deer farms as much as other aspects of CWD until he was named secretary in January.
“I have a better understanding now of all the buying, selling and trading that is going on among the farms,” Hassett said. “This area is a lot higher on my radar screen now.”
Even though deer and elk farms continue to be a concern, Hassett is still focusing on the wild deer herd.
“Our priority is the deer herd in Wisconsin and to prevent CWD from spreading and to prevent collapse of the wild herd,” he said.
The state has had some difficulty getting information from a private testing laboratory in Wisconsin that tested samples associated with test kits that hunters bought last fall.
“We don’t have any jurisdiction over them (private testing laboratories),” Hassett said. “There has to be a meeting of the minds. It’s been a bit of a headache with the false positives that have turned up.”
One private testing laboratory reported at least five positive cases of CWD from samples hunters provided. A federal laboratory re-tested some or all of the samples and found them to be negative, although the private laboratory would not share the tissues with Wisconsin’s state testing laboratory.
Just how far CWD has and could spread in Wisconsin is unknown, but Hauge isn’t surprised to see positive samples show up outside the Eradication Zone.
“We never thought of the Wisconsin River as a barrier to deer or the disease moving north,” Hauge said. “The river is more of a filter than a barrier. Islands in the river are favorite deer hunting areas and canoeists see deer swimming across the river.”
The single case in Richland County is the only deer of the 55 positive samples that has been found north of the Wisconsin River.Wisconsin deer biologists are also sharing information with biologists in Illinois.
“Illinois is now processing their samples,” Hauge said. “There is a great willingness to collaborate and cooperate with us. They are back where we were last March.”
Hassett realizes he must work with a smaller budget this year. The proposed license fee increases will still leave the DNR $7 million short of what licenses brought in last year. No new conservation wardens are being hired and trained this year.
“We have the lowest ratio of conservation wardens to population of any state,” Hassett said. “It’s a great concern not to have a warden class in 2003.”
Hassett believes if states in the Midwest cooperate and work together, they have a greater chance of getting federal funds to deal with CWD.
“Working together will give CWD an even greater profile than if it’s just Wisconsin,” he said.