Madison — Joined at the hip by the finding of chronic wasting disease in wild deer near Mount Horeb and on deer farms in Portage and Walworth counties, the DNR and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) have been working together on the state’s CWD problems since February.
Both agencies have different missions and different specialties, and both had the chance to tell their stories about CWD on game farms to the state Senate’s Committee on Labor and Agriculture on Oct. 16.
James Harsdorf, secretary of DATCP, told the committee Wisconsin has 575 farms with captive white-tailed deer and 272 with captive elk. About 100 farms raise red deer, reindeer, fallow deer and/or sika deer.
Harsdorf announced that besides quarantines that were placed on a game farm in Portage County where a white-tailed deer tested positive for CWD, and two farms in Walworth County that had links to the Portage County farm, that a deer farm in Dane County near Brooklyn also has been quarantined.
The Brooklyn game farm was quarantined while DATCP investigators looked through paperwork to determine if it had any connection to the CWD-positive deer in Portage County. That deer, and another from the Brooklyn farm, were tagged with identical numbers, according to DATCP, and the agency needed time to sort out the identities of the deer.
Harsdorf said although a CWD deer was confirmed on the Portage County farm on Sept. 18, the farm had not yet been depopulated. He said that would probably not occur until the end of the year.
“We do not have state indemnity funds available until after Jan. 1,” said Dr. Robert Ehlenfeldt, DATCP veterinarian. The animals must be appraised and then killed. In addition, there are issues with disposal of carcasses and costs to hire shooters.
Tom Solin, special operations chief in the DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement, highlighted major issues of CWD and game farms.
Solin said that since the CWD-positive deer was found in Portage County in September, more than 80 DNR field wardens, supervisors and support staff have been involved in the investigation. They’re trying to determine the identity of the white-tailed deer that tested positive for CWD and which other captive deer and wild deer have been exposed.
The DNR has no wardens exclusively assigned to deer farm issues and has pulled wardens from traditional duties.
Part of the problem is the lack of animal identification, Solin said, and inaccuracy of records maintained by deer farmers.
“The lack of a requirement for permanent individual identification has severely hampered this investigation,” he said. “The positive CWD deer only had a farm tag and no other identification. Often on hunting ranches, hunters remove the tags for taking photos, before CWD samples are taken.”
Wardens say the deer may have been on the farm for nine months, but it also could have been there 31/2 years.
The need for the background work to determine individual deer identities is cause for concern, they say. On Jan. 1, 2003, wardens no longer will have authority to continue their role in the investigation, which will be transferred to DATCP.
While DATCP has expertise in animal health issues and testing, wardens have the investigative expertise. Solin told the committee that in the case of the CWD-positive buck, wardens have had to obtain search warrants to get information.
Solin showed photos of captive deer with wild deer on the opposite side of the fence, allowing for potential for nose-to-nose contact. He also showed a slide of a farm where a gate was kept open and corn was piled up inside the fence. The wardens believe the owner allowed wild deer to wander in and then closed the gate, but never saw it happen and couldn’t prove it.
Solin called for a short-term memorandum of understanding between the DNR and DATCP that would allow wardens to continue their role in the investigation after Jan. 1.
Solin also called for modification of statutes so the DNR retains authority to monitor and enforce transactions, movement and fences for captive white-tailed deer, elk and other cervids.
He suggested a regulatory scheme funded by license fees on deer farmers.
“It is crucial that we know what animals are where and when,” Solin said. “Now, we are a month out and we’re still attempting to determine which deer were exposed to the CWD-positive animal, and that’s unacceptable.”
An estimated 30 percent of deer farms participate in a voluntary CWD testing program. Solin added that many deer farmers are cooperative, but some are not. That makes the investigation difficult.
He called for all new farms to install 10-foot fences, and for farms not enrolled in the voluntary CWD monitoring program to double-fence their properties.
Currently fence regulations for elk, red, fallow, and sika deer are the responsibility of the township. Solin said fences are not being maintained and fence inspection should be returned to DNR.
Other requested changes include: • Mandatory reporting of escaped deer and elk; • Increased penalties for the illegal release of captive deer and elk.
State Rep. Al Ott, (R-Forest Junction), urged the DNR and DATCP not to get involved in turf wars. He said if the agencies don’t have the budget or personnel, they should blame the Legislature rather than try to change the state law.
Tom Hauge, DNR wildlife management bureau director, responded to a question from a legislator that, “The DNR is not out to shut down the deer and elk industry.”
Diana Susen, secretary and treasurer of the Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmers Association, warned the committee against over-reaction to CWD and unreasonable restrictions that could kill the fledgling industry.
She criticized the news media for the “garbage” about CWD, and said the news media is “killing our business.” Susen said members of the association have been in the forefront of good animal husbandry and health practices, and they believe DATCP is best qualified to regulate practices for deer and elk inside fences.
Ott told Susen he supported the industry, but that her comments gave him concerns and he had the impression she was “in denial.”
“With less than 40 percent of the industry a member of your association, and thus doing voluntary CWD testing, there are a whole bunch of folks out there creating problems for you,” Ott said.
Brett Hulsey, a Madison resident who chairs the Dane County CWD Task Force, pointed out to the committee a lack of DATCP action in the past.
He quoted from what DATCP officials knew about CWD in 1998, calls for action by DNR, and DATCP’s defense of the industry and inaction. He pointed out DATCP’s establishment of a CWD advisory committee dominated by game farm owners, several of whom were large donors to former Gov. Thompson.
“DATCP reacted too little and too late,” Hulsey said. Hulsey pointed out that only 305 of 947 farms are enrolled in a CWD voluntary monitoring program, and that there are 35,000 animals in game farms around the state that can be “nose to nose to wild deer.”
Hulsey asked for changes that would: • Require all farms to be in the CWD monitoring program and use double fences or be shut down; • Expand the DNR live deer CWD experimental test to game farms; • Require all dead or sick deer be tested on farms, not just farms that are moving animals; • Require reporting of all dead game farm animals immediately; • Require the industry to pay for new inspectors, and keep joint authority with DATCP and DNR.
“We are at a crossroads in taking action against CWD,” Hulsey said. “We limit the spread of the disease, or if we don’t we will see it spread to the rest of the state like in Colorado.”