Arena – Deer No. 1105 lay on top of a blanket as an IV bag slowly dripped saline solution into the slumbering animal.
It was cold, about 5 degrees, and a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison was working to finish as quickly as it could before the deer awoke.
A veterinarian and another staff member from the Department of Wildlife Ecology poked and prodded the yearling buck, which, by the vagaries of nature, was born in a pocket of Wisconsin where chronic wasting disease was first discovered.
The 101-pound buck is one of 120 deer near Arena, in Iowa County, and Black Earth, in Dane County, that will be caught and outfitted with radio collars over the next two years as part of a research project to help authorities determine how far the deadly disease may be spreading.
Chronic wasting disease was discovered in Wisconsin almost a year ago, and from the start it has raised uncertainty about the health of the state’s deer herd.
Finding the disease also kicked off an aggressive strategy by the Department of Natural Resources to kill as many deer as possible to control its spread.
Since Oct. 24, about 8,000 deer have been killed in a 411-square-mile area covering parts of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties. So far, 53 whitetails have been found with the disease in the zone, and five have been found outside it.
Setting wildlife management policy has always been closely aligned with science.
So here, where among the deer tested the disease is percolating through the herd at a rate of 2.2%, one policy calls for killing deer, while another is sparing deer so scientists can learn more.
As Deer No. 1105 was on the ground asleep, its chest rising and falling, veterinarian Tanya Hoffman patted its fur like it was a pet dog, while wildlife ecologist Anne Oyer took blood and stool samples and monitored the deer’s temperature and other vitals.
Oyer, who is heading up the field team for the project, also took several snips of the deer’s tonsils – a novel way to test for chronic wasting disease. A tonsil biopsy is not an approved method to test for the disease, but the Wisconsin team and another in Colorado are experimenting with this non-lethal approach. Other sampling techniques require the deer to be killed.
If a deer tests positive by the tonsil method, the team will track it down, sharpshooters will be called, and the deer will be killed.
“Our work is primarily to learn about deer behavior and movement,” said Nancy Mathews, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at UW-Madison, an expert in deer behavior who is in charge of the research.
Special attention to females The five-year, $500,000 research project is being paid for by groups that include Whitetails Unlimited, a national sporting organization based in Sturgeon Bay; the DNR; the North Central Agriculture Experiment Station; and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which is curious about the possibility that deer could infect cattle.
Traps were first set up in late October, but it wasn’t until the end of last month that deer – apparently less skittish, and with food supplies harder to come buy – were attracted to food stashed in wire cages the size of a freezer. Once a deer enters a cage, it can’t escape.
Data from the tracking will be plugged periodically into computer models now being run at the university. The models are making predictions about how chronic wasting disease could spread under different scenarios.
Both the research on the deer and the modeling are being shared with DNR biologists and policy makers.
In her work, Mathews is testing both old and new theories about deer behavior.
An old theory: Most young bucks like Deer No. 1105will leave the place where they were born and travel up to 10 miles this spring. It is these bucks that could transmit the disease while they are mating, or when they they rub antlers or come into close contact with other deer.
A new theory: Female deer, who normally don’t move as much as male deer, could play a bigger role than previously thought by being uprooted from their home range because of near-constant hunting pressure, and pushing the disease into new areas.
Thus, chronic wasting disease could be exacerbated by the DNR’s own policy of trying to kill as many deer as possible in the zone.
“There is some limited evidence in other parts of the country that intensive harvest pressure will break down the social structure and cause more females to disperse,” Mathews said.
Tracking deer has been done for decades, but Mathews said that little of the research has focused on the movement of females.
Some of the traps are being set on land owned by people who don’t agree with the DNR’s eradication strategy. They are cooperating with researchers.
‘As much data as possible’ DeerNo. 1105 was trapped on the edge of a cornfield owned by farmer Mark Peck of Arena, an opponent of the DNR’s mass killing of deer.
Peck and his family and friends shot about 15 deer last fall on his 700-acre corn and soybean farm. Normally, the group takes 20 or 25 deer.
“We tried to maintain our tradition,” Peck said. “I have a boy who turned 12 this year and he started hunting. But I disagree with the DNR’s policies. I don’t think they are achievable.”
Still, Peck supports the research.
“I think that we need to understand this thing before trying to attack it,” he said. “I don’t think that clubbing it over the head is the answer.”
There are two field teams from UW-Madison, including the one that worked on Deer No. 1105, and over the next three or four years their job is to head out periodically in trucks equipped with receivers, and pinpoint deer locations with the use of a global positioning system.
As for Deer No. 1105, the young buck woke up at almost 10 a.m. – an hour and a half after it was injected with two sedatives.
It walked groggily for a few steps, crashed into some saplings and turned to look at a group of warmly dressed humans wearing plastic sanitary booties.
Over the months and years ahead, its movements through these hills and pastures will be monitored – one deer’s contribution to the study of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin.