Bill aimed at fencing at Wisconsin deer farms

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Rep. Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) speaks Wednesday at news conference in Madison announcing a bill to strengthen fencing requirements at Wisconsin deer farms. Wachs was surrounded by supporters of the bill and fellow lawmakers.

MADISON - A bill to strengthen fencing requirements at Wisconsin deer farms where chronic wasting disease has been detected was introduced at the Capitol.

The proposed legislation would require double or electric fencing around all CWD-positive captive cervid facilities.

In addition, it would require an electronic monitoring device on the gate at deer farms and increase the frequency of fence testing by the Department of Natural Resources.

State representatives Nick Milroy (D-South Range) and Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) are the lead authors of the proposed legislation.

The lawmakers call the bill the "Save Our Deer Act."

"The goal is to prevent escapes of captive animals and to protect our wild deer herd," Wachs said. "Containment is the first step. Farm-raised deer can easily pass CWD through a single fence."

Wachs, a potential Democrat candidate for governor in 2018, called CWD a "significant problem" and said Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature had "done little to combat it."

Current state law allows single fencing on captive cervid facilities, including those where the disease has been found.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has regulatory authority over deer farms, while the DNR is responsible for fences at the facilities and deer outside of them.

The bill would shore up a weakness in state regulations exacerbated in 2015 when the DNR relaxed standards to prevent deer farmers from complying with a stricter federal rule.

Double fences provide additional separation between animals inside and out and help reduce the risks of disease transfer, according to animal health officials.

Further, the bill would require deer farm fences to be inspected at least every two years by the DNR (the current requirement is once every 10 years) to ensure sick deer do not escape the farms and infect the wild population, Milroy said.

“We owe it to the people of Wisconsin, not just hunters, to do everything we can to slow the spread of CWD,” Milroy said. “Hunting is a time-honored tradition and a major industry in Wisconsin; without a healthy deer herd our hunting heritage and economy are in jeopardy."

Milroy acknowledged there was much to learn about the disease but said it was imperative to try to slow its spread.

"Creating additional safeguards at deer farms will give us an extra layer of protection," Milroy said.

The bill, yet to be assigned a standard number, is referred to as LRB-2277/1.

Wisconsin has 387 deer farms and 15 have had CWD detected in their animals since 2001, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In 2015, the state paid nearly $300,000 to a deer farmer in Eau Claire after the facility was depopulated of 228 whitetails. In post-mortem testing, 33 of the animals were found to be CWD-positive.

In the year prior to the depopulation, more than a dozen deer escaped the facility, including two bucks that were later determined to be CWD-positive, according to state officials.

Chronic wasting disease is contagious and caused by an abnormal protein, or prion. It is fatal to deer and has no known cure. It affects members of the deer family but has not been shown to affect other livestock or humans.

Still, public health officials advise against consuming meat from a CWD-positive animal.

The disease was initially documented in Colorado in the 1960s and has since been found in more than 20 states and several provinces of Canada. The first CWD cases detected in Wisconsin were found in wild deer killed in late 2001 in Iowa and Dane counties.

It's not known how the disease found its way to Wisconsin, the first state east of the Mississippi to have CWD in its wild deer herd.

The DNR now considers 43 of the state's 72 counties "CWD-affected."

The disease has increased in prevalence and geographic distribution over the last decade. Prevalence rates as high as 50% are reported in adult bucks (the animals most likely to have the disease) in parts of Iowa County, according to the DNR.

The bill has the support of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and Whitetails Unlimited, said George Meyer, WWF executive director.

Laurie Seale of Gilman, vice-president of Whitetails of Wisconsin, had a mixed reaction to the proposed legislation.

"As long as it’s dealing only with CWD-positive herds, the electric fence is a requirement we could possibly live with," Seale said.

Seale said double fencing is generally too expensive for large operations to put in place.

However, she doubted the electronic gate technology is immediately available or feasible.

Whitetails of Wisconsin is a nonprofit organization representing whitetail farmers and hunting preserves in the state.

No Republican legislator had come out in support of the proposal as of Wednesday.

It's not known which committee the bill would be assigned to or, once designated, if it would even receive a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Wachs called the bill "common sense" and urged the other side of the aisle to get behind it.

"Deer hunting is an important tradition in Wisconsin and it contributes over $1 billion to our economy per year," Wachs said. "We must do what we can to ensure that this tradition continues.”