LANSING — Chronic wasting disease has yet to rear its head in Michigan, but state wildlife experts say the presence of the deadly infectious disease in neighboring states demands vigilance to avoid a natural resources and economic crisis.

Chronic wasting disease “poses such a threat to our wildlife that it must be stopped at our borders,” Lt. Gov. John Cherry said Monday, during the inaugural meeting of a task force appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Cherry pointed to Wisconsin, where infected deer were discovered just more than a year ago and where officials since have spent more than $11.5 million dollars combating the brain disease.

The disease’s emergence in Wisconsin, where so far 207 deer have tested positive, dampened hunting license sales and hurt businesses connected to hunting and tourism. Michigan officials fear an outbreak here could cause tens of millions of dollars in damages to the economy and threaten the free-ranging deer herd.

Michigan wildlife officials say they tested nearly 4,400 deer and elk in 2002 and found no indication of the disease. But the Wisconsin outbreak– which blind-sided officials there — means a concerted effort is required to protect against it here, authorities say.

Task force members, composed of five natural resources, veterinary and wildlife biology experts, are charged with developing a plan to wall off the state from the disease. The task force is expected to present its findings to Granholm by Sept. 19, chairman Howard Tanner, former director of the Department of Natural Resources, said.

The group is expected to closely examine possible ties between chronic wasting disease and the private sector, specifically the nearly 800 deer and elk businesses in Michigan that offer captive herd hunting, animals used for exhibitions, or deer and elk used for retail sale to restaurants and specialty stores.

Many of those businesses built their animal stocks by importing deer and elk from other states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the disease is present. In April 2001, the state placed a one-year ban on animal imports and continued the import barrier this year.

Officials with the state Department of Agriculture say they’re working closely with private deer and elk operations to test those herds, though tests cannot be conducted on living animals.

The task force is expected to tackle additional issues, including enforcement, and may make recommendations on hot-topic concerns such as deer baiting. Currently, the state allows limited deer baiting, but if the disease is discovered within a 50-mile buffer of neighboring states, an outright ban will be implemented.

Alex Draper, president of the Michigan Deer and Elk Farmers Association, told the task force that private herds are a “billion-dollar industry” in the state.

He called current laws governing the industry “pretty solid” and urged the task force to “be mindful of extreme activism” and “media hysteria” while examining the disease.

Bill Murphy, a retired DNR enforcement officer and president of Michigan Resources Stewards, a group of former DNR and Department of Environmental Quality staffers, said the task force must closely scrutinize the captive herd industry.

Michigan’s wild deer herd and related businesses could be devastated by an outbreak of the disease, he said.

“Protecting this resource must take absolute priority,” Murphy said.

The task force scheduled additional public meetings in July, August and September.

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