CWD spreads on deer and elk farms as Wisconsin’s control efforts stumble
Rapidly growing numbers of cases of chronic wasting disease are appearing on deer and elk farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin at the same time the state has pulled back on rules and procedures designed to limit the spread of the fatal brain disease among its captive and wild deer.
Since 2013, when the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) began to let some captive deer facilities with infected animals continue operating, additional cases of CWD have developed within those facilities, according to interviews and documents obtained under the state’s Open Records Law.
The state's overall strategy for limiting CWD lacks consistency. In October, months after Gov. Scott Walker announced “aggressive new actions” against CWD, lawmakers rejected an emergency rule to limit hunters from moving deer carcasses from counties affected by the fatal brain disorder.
Meanwhile, enhanced fencing requirements are under consideration for captive white-tailed deer and other cervids including elk — but those proposals face heavy opposition from facility owners who say such a requirement is not guaranteed to halt CWD spread and could put them out of business.
National CWD expert Bryan Richards said Wisconsin’s current approach of allowing facilities with CWD-infected animals to continue operating poses a serious threat to the state’s wild deer population, which has seen more than 4,400 infected deer since the first CWD case in 2002.
Wisconsin now has more CWD-positive deer farms in operation than any other state in the nation, said Richards, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
There are nine CWD-positive deer facilities still in business — seven of which have seen additional cases of CWD on their properties, according to DATCP records.
“The existence of CWD in these facilities constitutes a clear, persistent and likely escalating risk to the integrity of the wild deer on the other side of the fence,” Richards said.
But a top DATCP official said the goal is to keep CWD contained and away from the wild deer population. Until 2013, herds at CWD-positive facilities in Wisconsin were killed and the sites were disinfected.
The new approach “is meant to mitigate risk of moving the disease … outside of the fence,” said Amy Horn-Delzer, veterinary program manager.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is unclear whether this always fatal disease can be passed to humans. Signs of the disease in animals include weight loss, stumbling, drooling and aggression.
There are 380 registered commercial deer and elk operations in Wisconsin spread across nearly every county in the state. They are generally broken down into two categories: breeding farms and hunting ranches.
Breeding farms raise deer to sell to slaughter and to ranches that sell hunting experiences at fenced-in properties. They also sell deer to other breeding farms looking to introduce new genetic lines into their herd.
There have been 300 CWD-positive tests at 24 farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin, according to state records. Most of those have been found since 2013 — the same year that DATCP, which shares regulation of deer farms with the state Department of Natural Resources, began allowing CWD-infected facilities to continue operating.
State law allows authorities to test animals and, if warranted, kill the herd to avoid the spread of disease. Owners can receive up to $3,000 in state and federal funding for each euthanized animal.
DATCP acting state veterinarian Darlene Konkle said the agency now evaluates risk on a “case-by-case” basis rather than a blanket policy of depopulating entire herds after a detection. Konkle said DATCP keeps close tabs on them, including bans on moving live animals on or off.
Hunting ranch open despite 84 CWD cases
But there are exceptions to the rule.
Wilderness Game Farm Inc. operates two breeding farms and a hunting ranch in Portage County, and hunting ranches in Marathon and Shawano counties. Since 2013, there have been 84 cases of CWD on the Marathon County hunting ranch called Wilderness North — the most of any captive facility in Wisconsin.
The ranch continues to sell hunts priced at between $4,000 and $9,000 each, with an option for a “Gold Hunt” — no price listed — that promises deer with antlers measuring 200 inches, including all points.
Emails from Wilderness Game Farm owner Greg Flees and DATCP officials show quarantines allow Flees to move deer from his breeding farms, which had no CWD detections, to his hunting ranches. One of them, Comet Creek in Shawano County, has had six deer test positive for CWD since 2017.
This April, officials also approved Flees’ request to move deer considered genetically resistant to CWD to the heavily infected Wilderness North property to test whether they develop the disease. It is part of a research project in collaboration with a researcher from Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona.
Flees is one of the best known names in deer farming both in Wisconsin and nationwide. He said he does not know how CWD came to his Marathon County hunting ranch.
“We never took a deer from anywhere else other than this farm that’s never had a positive,” Flees said. “We put them onto that property, and once they were on that landscape, for awhile all of a sudden we started getting some positives.”
Flees said it is possible that CWD was already on the property. A 2015 study shows that the misfolded protein that causes CWD, known as a prion, can be taken up from the soil into plants and infect deer.
Another potential method of transmission is deer that escape from CWD-positive facilities. DATCP records show that 67 deer escaped from Fairchild Whitetails in Eau Claire County between 2009 and 2015, before the 228-head herd was killed. Among the escapees were two bucks shot by hunters that tested positive for CWD, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.
Owner Rick Vojtik, who is also the president of deer farm advocacy group, Whitetails of Wisconsin, was paid $298,770 for the animals that were killed; he told the Leader-Telegram the herd was worth about $1 million. In all, 34 animals tested positive for CWD.
Richards said the state’s decision to allow CWD-positive facilities to continue operating was a “very interesting change in philosophy and quite different to what had been done previously across the rest of the country.”
Emergency rules proposed — then dropped
In May, Walker announced a series of actions aimed at slowing the spread of CWD. He called on DATCP to draw up an emergency rule requiring enhanced fencing and banning the movement of live deer from the state’s 55 counties listed as CWD affected, meaning either an infected deer had been detected there or within 10 miles of the county.
Despite that, DATCP’s citizen board, made up of Walker appointees, voted to take no action on the governor’s request for emergency rules. Now, the agency is pursuing the longer, regular rulemaking process to enact those restrictions.
The Republican governor also called on the state DNR to create emergency rules that would have banned hunters from transporting deer carcasses out of counties listed as CWD affected to non-affected counties.
The Natural Resources Board, also staffed by Walker appointees, did proceed with emergency rules to require enhanced fencing, including a second 8-foot tall fence or an electric fence for whitetail deer farms, and to limit the movement of deer carcasses from CWD-affected counties this hunting season.
In October, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, which reviews agency regulations, voted to eliminate the restrictions on moving deer carcasses.
DNR’s emergency fencing rule allows the industry until September 2019 to comply. But the rule itself expires in February. Asked whether deer farmers could simply wait to avoid the requirement, DNR policy initiatives advisor Scott Loomans said the agency is working on a permanent rule to take effect “before or very close to when the emergency rule expires.”
The state DNR has estimated the total cost for all deer farms currently without double or enhanced fencing to be about $2.1 million. Whitetails of Wisconsin, whose members strongly oppose the requirement, has estimated the cost at more than 10 times that.
Woods and Meadow Hunting Preserve owner Scott Goetzka of Warrens, Wisconsin, said the cost of complying would “basically legislate you out of business.”
Even if farms are required to install additional fencing, that may not stop the spread, Richards said. He noted that CWD has been detected in Wisconsin inside a double-fenced facility.
“So, if that infectious agent can move from the outside into a captive facility across two fences, I see no reason to suspect that it could not move the other direction as well,” Richards said.
Al Horvath of Superior, a lifelong hunter and delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of cooperation between DNR and DATCP on chronic wasting disease. Horvath, who considers himself pro-business, said he understands that families have poured their entire life savings into their deer and elk operations.
But, he added, “I think that someone’s profit potential — their individual profit potential — is not sufficient to jeopardize a tradition and an entire population of animals.”
Flees hopes genetics will provide an answer. He has been working with a researcher to breed deer with genetic markers that show resistance to CWD. Flees said in five years, he could have a resistant herd.
Other research suggests it could be quite a while until such answers are available.
“There are still many unknowns that make clear predictions about the longer-term evolution of CWD resistance difficult,” according to an article co-written in June by Michael Samuel, emeritus professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Meanwhile, the spread of CWD across Wisconsin continues. On Nov. 15, another deer hunting ranch tested positive for the disease in Portage County, bringing the total number of facilities that have tested positive since 2002 to 24.
This report was collaboratively produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.