MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin wildlife officials recapped their fight against chronic wasting disease before a panel of national deer experts Monday, telling them that killing all the deer near Mount Horeb could wipe out the disease in less than a decade.
The experts’ visit comes after Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett suggested the agency should scale back the agency’s key plan to wipe out the wild herd in a 411-square-mile eradication zone near Mount Horeb to stop the disease from spreading.
But John Cary, a University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife ecology information consultant who has worked with the DNR on CWD projections, presented a computer model to the experts that showed eradicating the Mount Horeb-area herd could wipe out CWD in Wisconsin within six years.
“It is possible to be successful in eradication, but it takes a while,” Cary said.
But panel member Larry Marchington, a retired University of Georgia wildlife scientist, said it’s too early to decide whether Wisconsin’s eradication policy is sound.
“I’m not ready to decide, but it’s something we really need to talk about,” Marchington said.
CWD was first discovered in southwest Wisconsin near Mount Horeb in February 2002, the first time the deadly brain ailment was found east of the Mississippi River.
The disease creates sponge-like holes in a deer’s brain, causing the animal to grow thin, act abnormal and die. Scientists believe it is spread by animal-to-animal contact. There is no scientific evidence it can infect humans, but people are advised not to eat an infected deer.
The DNR’s tactics have been under scrutiny since April, but they’ve come under especially intense questioning in the last month.
Critics have said the agency can’t kill all the deer in the eradication zone and the DNR doesn’t know enough about the disease to make such a drastic move. Hassett said it might not be possible to kill all the deer in the eradication zone and the DNR should instead try to kill as many as possible.
Landowners also have been unhappy with a baiting and feeding ban the DNR imposed to reduce deer-to-deer contact. They say the government shouldn’t tell them what to do on their own land.
The DNR officials asked the panel of experts to audit their tactics. Sarah Shapiro Hurley, an agency wildlife veterinarian and deputy land division administrator, told the Natural Resources Board in March the review should restore the agency’s credibility.
The panel, comprised of academic experts and state veterinarians, is scheduled to meet with DNR officials again Tuesday to discuss the agency’s efforts to control the disease and hunter response to CWD. The group hopes to finish a written evaluation of DNR strategies by May, said panel member Shawn Riley, an assistant wildlife professor at Michigan State University.
The group listened silently Monday as DNR wildlife director Tom Hauge detailed several steps the department has taken to fight the disease, including:
-Creating unprecedented one-week summer hunts in the area around Mount Horeb where the disease first was discovered in Wisconsin.
-Constructing a CWD lab in less than nine months.
-Attracting more funds for the fight against the disease.
“Very early on, this disease has affected our state in ways we’ve never seen before,” Hauge told the panel.
Shelby Molina, CWD monitoring program coordinator with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, told the panel farmers have enrolled 292 herds in CWD monitoring with another 189 to go, she said