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State will test up to 15,000 more deer
Plan to fight chronic wasting disease includes statewide ban on feeding
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff

Madison - As part of a sweeping plan to fight chronic wasting disease, state officials said Wednesday they hope to test 10,000 to 15,000 deer for the disease this fall, as well as ban feeding and baiting of deer statewide.

The latest initiatives come one week after the Department of Natural Resources proposed "radically" changing hunting regulations to limit the spread of the deadly brain disease by killing more deer near the source of the outbreak in south-central Wisconsin.

But fighting the disease will be hard, and if it goes unchecked, Wisconsin's deer population could be sharply reduced by the disease, members of the Natural Resources Board were told Wednesday.

Hunters might be reluctant to spend extra time killing deer this fall, especially in 10 counties surrounding the outbreak of the disease near Mount Horeb in western Dane and eastern Iowa counties.

Testing for the diseases also faces serious logistical problems. And there are questions about how the carcasses of tens of thousands of deer can be properly disposed.

Also on Wednesday, the DNR reported one more deer that tested positive for the disease from the final samples submitted to a federal laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

That brings to 11 the number of new cases of chronic wasting disease from 516 deer that were killed and sampled in a 415-square-mile surveillance area. The first three deer that tested positive were the result of routine testing during the 2001 deer hunt.

All 14 deer that tested positive were discovered within 13 miles of each other.

Big challenge ahead

"Now comes the most difficult task," said Julie Langenberg, a DNR veterinarian. "Now we have to take this data, along with the small amount of science there is, and make further recommendations."

The big job: how much to reduce the deer herd and how wide of an area should be affected by the DNR's actions.

Langenberg and a team of scientists and wildlife experts from several state agencies are mapping out their plans.

They told DNR board members that the agency should seek authority to ban feeding of deer across the state. They also said Wisconsin's entire wild deer population should be viewed as a single "at-risk" group - not just the animals in south-central Wisconsin.

The DNR now has authority to ban baiting but does not have the power to control the feeding of deer - a popular practice among hunters and non-hunters alike.

The state Assembly passed a measure giving the DNR such authority as part of its version of the budget adjustment bill now pending in the Legislature. That bill is now being negotiated by lawmakers.

Feeding ban a 'no-brainer'

Experts don't know how chronic wasting disease - also called mad deer disease - infected Wisconsin's deer herd, although it was probably the result of someone bringing in a diseased animal from outside the state, Langenberg said.

But experts believe feeding deer and high concentrations help spread the disease, she said.

While some board members questioned whether an outright ban on feeding was necessary, Langenberg said afterward it was essential.

"It's a no-brainer," she said.

The state's chronic wasting team also wants to test more deer, and as many as 15,000 deer could be tested during the fall hunt, Langenberg said. However, even that proposal faces obstacles.

For starters, there is no facility in Wisconsin to test the brains of deer for the disease.

The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison would perform the work, but it would require approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Private laboratories also have expressed an interest in getting into the business at some time, Langenberg said.

Hiring personnel and ramping up the lab to accommodate an onslaught of deer would cost $1 million, with annual operation costs of $400,000 to $500,000, said Robert Shull, the lab's director. The lab has no funding for the project yet.

The DNR is asking the Legislature to increase its funding for chronic wasting disease from $1 million to $4 million, using money from a hunter-financed fund it doles out to farmers whose crops are damaged by deer.

How bad can it get?

On another front, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists are developing a computer model of what might happen if the disease goes unchecked.

A study further along in Colorado of mule deer, where chronic wasting disease was discovered earlier, has shown that the deer population in Colorado would fall to 20% of its current population over 10 to 30 years if no protective measures were taken to curtail the disease.

"We don't know what will happen in Wisconsin, but from what we know now, it spreads faster among white-tailed deer," Langenberg said.

Thus, the DNR is poised to recommend a far more liberal hunting season by reducing the population to 10% of its size near the outbreak area and increasing bag limits in 10 surrounding counties. The DNR board is expected to review those changes for the fall hunt at its June meeting.

Hunters played a key role in killing the 516 deer that were tested for the prevalence of the disease near Mount Horeb.

"We really hope that the hunters step forward again, but it won't be easy," said Bill Vander Zouwen, chief of the DNR's wildlife ecology section.

Hunters will need to get on land that is currently not open to hunting, he said. And with the safety of the venison in question, hunters might be reluctant to spend more time hunting, he said.

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