LANSING – The state should conduct a thorough audit of all captive deer and elk facilities and transfer oversight of the industry to the Department of Natural Resources if it hopes to keep chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Michigan, a governor-appointed task force said Wednesday. Calling CWD “the most serious threat to the health and well-being of Michigan’s deer and elk herds,” Howard Tanner, who co-chaired the task force, presented 12 recommendations designed to keep the state free from the degenerative neurological disease.

“Our line is we’re going to keep it out, we’re going to prevent it,” Tanner said. “We don’t want to have to deal with it.”

CWD is similar to mad cow disease, caused by a mutated protein. First discovered in pen-reared animals in Colorado in 1967, the disease has since been found in deer and elk in 10 other states and two Canadian provinces.

An estimated 800 private deer and elk facilities operate in Michigan, raising animals for private hunting clubs, venison and antlers. They are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, to which oversight was transferred from the DNR in 2000 by the Legislature.

But the report drew criticism from the agricultural community.

Dan Marsh, executive director of the Michigan Deer and Elk Farmers Association, said the report focused almost entirely on the captive deer and elk industry, although the disease has been found in free-ranging animals as well.

“The main concern is they did not address the issue that the best preventative for any wildlife disease is a well-managed deer herd,” Marsh said. “That may be stating the obvious, but we thought it should be in there. We’re surprised that it’s not.”

Michigan Farm Bureau spokesman Ron Nelson said his group feels oversight ought to remain with the Agriculture Department.

But Tanner said the DNR is a more logical choice because of its law enforcement capabilities. Private deer and elk facilities are required to be licensed, maintain fences and keep accurate records of transactions.

“It is going to take resources and I’d like to think it’s serious enough, even in these troubled (financial) times,” Tanner said. “We don’t want to have to deal with (CWD).”

The task force, which met throughout the summer, was impressed by an audit of the captive deer and elk industry in Wisconsin, which found CWD on both private farms and in the wild herd, Tanner said. The Wisconsin audit showed that escapes from captive facilities were commonplace and farmers often failed to report transfers and acquisitions of animals, as required by law. The movement of diseased animals is thought to have contributed to the spread of CWD.

The task force also recommended that the current rule against importing deer and elk be extended until a full-scale risk assessment has been conducted.

But that’s not good enough, said Sam Washington, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Washington said the import ban should remain in effect until a live-animal test for CWD is available.

Otherwise, MUCC likes the report, especially the transfer of oversight to the DNR.

“The DNR has a very viable enforcement division,” Washington said. “The (Agriculture Department) does not. It is regrettable that the transfer of authority on licensing and policing these facilities ever took place.”