Smith: State must stamp out CWD at deer farms
WAUPACA - Chronic wasting disease has arrived in Wisconsin's deer factory.
Last Friday state officials announced two CWD-positive white-tailed deer were found at a Waupaca County shooting preserve.
"I've been dreading this day," said Todd Schill, 55, of Waupaca who has deer hunted in the county for 40 years. "I didn't buy hunting land here to be next to CWD."
The two CWD-positive bucks represented the first findings of the fatal deer disease in the central Wisconsin deer hunting hotbed.
Worse yet, the state agency with authority over captive cervid facilities - the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection - isn't doing anything to snuff it out.
And the state's wildlife agency — the Department of Natural Resources — has become a mute, powerless observer as CWD pops up at Wisconsin's deer farms and threatens to spread into the immensely valuable wild deer herd around the captive facilities.
The Waupaca County case has brought Wisconsin CWD management under new scrutiny.
For about the last decade, state officials stopped attempts to wipe out the disease in southwestern Wisconsin where it had spread too widely but pledged to stamp out any CWD sparks detected in other areas of the state.
In fact, the 2012 Deer Trustees Report, a process ordered by Gov. Scott Walker, recommends "once the geographic context is determined, the appropriate action should be focused, localized eradication."
You can't get more well-defined geographical boundaries than a shooting preserve.
Yet in at least four cases in the last three years, new CWD detections at deer farms in Oneida, Oconto, Shawano and now Waupaca counties are being allowed to fester.
The Waupaca County facility in question is Hunt's End East in Ogdensburg, which had 40 deer on 84 acres, according to the the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The shooting preserve is surrounded by a single fence.
Hunt's End East and two other nearby properties under the same ownership were placed under quarantine. The ruling allows movement of live deer between the facilities.
Hunt's End will be allowed to continue its business on the quarantined ranches "because properly handled dead animals leaving the premises do not pose a disease risk," the consumer protection agency said in a statement.
Yet there's no guarantee carcasses will be handled properly. And keeping live deer in a contaminated facility clearly puts wild deer in the area in jeopardy.
A single fence allows nose-to-nose contact between animals inside and outside of the enclosure.
"Single fences are not sufficient (to prevent disease transfer)," said Michael Samuel, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus and an acknowledged expert on CWD. "We all know that animals escape and that fences fall apart."
Samuel said state officials and elected representatives should review any policy that allows a CWD-positive deer farm to continue to operate in light of the value of wild deer and deer hunting.
"The disease doesn't differentiate between wild deer and captive deer," Samuel said. "But the values of the two industries are hugely different. Our wild deer population is so much more valuable."
In addition to current economic values, Samuel said the wild deer herd has a long-term, sustainable benefit by supporting hunting and generating funds for wildlife management programs. Deer hunting is to the DNR's wildlife program as football is to the UW athletic department: by far the leading revenue producer.
Waupaca County, with a human population of just 51,945 and a rich mix of agricultural acreage and woodlots, is home to the state's highest deer density and is an annual Wisconsin leader in deer kill.
The county had an estimated deer density of 92 deer per square mile (44,000 deer on 480 square miles of habitat) this spring, according to DNR estimates, highest in Wisconsin. And that was before fawning season.
As the deer rut begins to kick in this fall, there are likely more wild whitetails in the county than human residents.
That's a lot of fuel for a wildlife fire. All it takes is one CWD positive deer to ignite it.
If ever there were conditions conducive for a new outbreak of CWD, it's Waupaca County.
All wild deer (1,194) tested for CWD since 1999 in Waupaca County have been negative.
The record will show the first CWD-positives in the county were on a shooting preserve which had animals trucked in.
Since 2002, 17 CWD-positive captive cervid facilities have been detected in Wisconsin; 11 have been depopulated.
The trend now, though, is to leave them open for business.
"From a wildlife management perspective, we'd rather have animals removed from a CWD-positive facility," said Tom Hauge, who retired in 2016 as DNR wildlife director. "And sooner rather than later."
Funding is an issue, of course.
So is will.
From an economic perspective, the importance of protecting Wisconsin's wild deer herd dwarfs the captive cervid lobby. Most estimates place the annual value of deer hunting in Wisconsin at $1 billion. And that doesn't include wildlife viewing.
An estimate isn't available for the 387 captive cervid facilities in the state, but by all measures it is a small fraction of the value of Wisconsin's wild deer.
But it appears the DNR has lost its will to combat CWD. And the state's agriculture and consumer protection agency has clearly sided with the business interests in the deer farming industry.
Just over a week ago Dan Schmidt, editor of Deer and Deer Hunting magazine and resident of Waupaca County since 1994, wrote a column for Waupaca County News detailing the quality and challenges facing deer hunting in the area.
"Over that past 23 years of working closely with deer hunters, wildlife biologists and researchers, I can confidently say it does not get any better than what we have here in Waupaca County," Schmidt wrote in his introduction.
Then toward the end he presciently added: "This discussion doesn’t even brush the tip of the looming chronic wasting disease iceberg. The disease isn’t here yet. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t have to deal with it anytime soon."
That day is here. And the state agencies responsible for protecting the county's wild deer herd don't seem up to the task.
Hunters like Schill are left to wonder about their future.
"Nobody seems to care what’s going on in these deer farms," Schill said. "How do you justify letting them operate after they have CWD? I’m really struggling with what is going on. Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to show we care more about our wild deer herd."