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Great Lakes Article:

Wisconsin can't dispose of thousands of deer killed to stop disease

WAUSAU, Wis. — Hunters took to the woods again over the weekend, hoping to kill every deer in one part of southwestern Wisconsin to halt an outbreak of a fatal disease.

Trouble is, wildlife officials still don't know how they're going to dispose of the tens of thousands of unwanted carcasses. Cremation is too costly. Landfills won't accept the carcasses for burial. Other possibilities are dissolving them with chemicals or opening a state-owned landfill.

"We were hoping there would be options that would be less fraught with complications," said Sarah Shapiro Hurley, deputy administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) land division. "If worst comes to worst, we will rent bulk, massive cold storage until we have options," she said. "This isn't a situation where we can afford to do nothing and cancel the hunt."

The DNR wants regular hunters and government sharpshooters to kill all the estimated 25,000 deer in a 361-square-mile area of Dane, Iowa, and Sauk counties, where 18 deer with chronic wasting disease have been found since last fall. The discovery marked the first time the disease, a relative of mad cow disease and always fatal in deer and elk, had been detected east of the Mississippi River.

Experts say there is no scientific evidence that chronic wasting disease can infect humans, but the World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer with evidence of the disease.

In Wisconsin, the disease also jeopardizes a strong tradition of deer hunting, a fall sport that annually attracts 700,000 hunters. A 1996 national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that deer hunters spent $897 million on their sport a year, and that the total economic impact would be more than $1 billion.

Although the bulk of the deer in Wisconsin's so-called eradication zone are expected to be killed during the regular fall hunting season, the DNR scheduled four week-long summer hunts to begin killing deer as soon as possible.

After the first season in June, almost all of the 262 deer killed were incinerated at a pet crematorium for $75 apiece, Shapiro Hurley said. Unwanted deer killed in the second season that began Saturday also will be incinerated, but after that, the state wants a less costly solution. The DNR last week requested proposals and bids on how to dispose of the deer.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by a little-understood protein known as a "prion," which sets off a chain reaction in brain tissue, causing some of the brain's own proteins to change into an aberrant form. A related form is involved in mad-cow disease. A deer affected with chronic wasting disease loses weight, begins trembling and stumbling, and dies. There is no known cure.

It takes extremely high temperatures to destroy prions, which is one reason landfill operators are balking at burying the deer carcasses. Dane County official Topf Wells said that while studies suggest the health risk from infected carcasses in landfills is minimal, there is "strong public concern" that prions could escape when liquid leaches from buried waste.

Brett Hulsey, a hunter, Dane County supervisor, and chairman of a county task force on chronic wasting disease, calls the unwanted carcasses a "3-million-pound problem."

Dane County's landfill buried about 500 carcasses from a spring hunt that was intended to determine how far the disease had spread. Since then, however, the county has told the DNR it won't bury any more. A private landfill in Jefferson County also reversed its policy because of public objections.

The cost of incinerating all the deer could reach $1 million, compared with $100,000 for burying them in a landfill, Hulsey said. State officials have discussed creating a special DNR landfill to bury the deer but have not seriously explored the issue, Shapiro Hurley said.

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