MADISON — Three years after chronic wasting disease was first detected among the state’s white-tailed deer herds, wildlife managers say Wisconsin is a national leader in CWD research and management.

That reputation has a chance to expand globally when the second annual International Chronic Wasting Disease Symposium convenes in Madison today through Thursday. More than 300 wildlife management specialists and researchers from 40 states and eight countries have pre-registered for the event.

Wildlife professionals, scientists and educators will learn about the latest studies and advancements in CWD management through 11 technical sessions and two field trips to an area deer farm, a deer processing center and research facilities.

Organizers say it’s also an opportunity for Wisconsin to showcase its research in such areas as the effects of baiting and feeding, possible risks to human health, cattle and scavengers susceptibility to CWD, comparing Wisconsin CWD strains to those found in other parts of North America, as well as deer social behavior and disease ecology.

“Wisconsin has been identified as one of the most aggressive states with regard to management,” said Bryan Richards, CWD project leader at the National Wildlife Health Center of the U.S. Geological Survey in Madison.

Richards said the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources immediately mobilized efforts to inform the public and took swift measures to contain the disease shortly after CWD was confirmed within the state in February 2002. Prior to that discovery, CWD had been documented in Colorado and Wyoming and only within mule deer populations.

“Really it was a wakeup call to wildlife managers nationwide when it was discovered in Wisconsin,” Richards said. “The disease historically had been thought of as a Western disease that was in low-density systems, and had low prevalence rates. And while there was a core group of researchers and managers that had been working vigorously with the disease for the last 30 years, it had been confined to that geographic area.”

Richards said the spread of CWD to a different deer species (white-tailed as opposed to mule deer) in a state 900 miles away “brought a new face to the disease.”

CWD is a neurological disease that attacks deer and elk. It produces lesions in the brain, which cause the animal to become emaciated, lose bodily functions and die.

The DNR has reported 470 cases in Wisconsin since the first three cases were detected after the 2001 deer-hunting season. Researchers have identified two areas of infection, one in the counties of Dane and Iowa — just west of Madison — and along the Wisconsin and Illinois border in the southwest counties of Walworth and Rock.

The DNR reports the disease continues to spread, but at a very slow rate.

It is believed the disease transmits only from animal to animal, but studies are under way to determine the risks to humans, cattle and other species that feed on deer.

“The more research that goes on, the more comfortable we are with the statement that there’s no evidence that CWD can get into domestic livestock or into the human population,” said Richards. “But the research can never be, in my mind, 100 percent conclusive.”

Bob Manwell, state DNR public affairs manager for forestry and land, said that in addition to scientific research, the focus of CWD strategy in the state is to conduct “face-to-face outreach” with individuals in the heavily affected areas to help monitor the disease.

Manwell says he is probably biased in agreeing that Wisconsin leads the nation in CWD research and management.

“This is a state where deer hunting is so deeply entwined in the social structure, and it is such a tradition here that it really impacts people,” said Manwell. Any threat to that strong tradition, Manwell said, would draw quick reaction from the state.

“We have certainly taken a strong lead,” he said.

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