An increasing number of cases of chronic wasting diseases are appearing in deer and elk farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin, at the same time that the state has withdrawn the rules and procedures designed to limit the spread of fatal brain disease among the captive and wild deer.
Since 2013, when the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection began to allow some deer facilities captive with infected animals to continue to operate, additional cases of CWD have been developed within those facilities, according to interviews and documents obtained under the Law of Open records of the state.
After Governor Scott Walker announced "new aggressive actions" against the CWD, lawmakers rejected an emergency rule to prevent hunters from moving the deer carcasses of the counties affected by the deadly brain disorder.
Meanwhile, improved fencing requirements are being considered for captive white-tailed deer and other cervids, including elk, but those proposals face strong opposition from facility owners who claim that there is no guarantee that such requirement will stop the spread of CWD and that could leave them out of business.
National expert on CWD, Bryan Richards, said Wisconsin's current approach to allowing facilities with animals infected with CWD to continue to operate poses a serious threat to the state's population of wild deer, which has seen more than 4,400 deer infected. from the first case of CWD in 2002.
Wisconsin now has more deer farms with positive CWDs in operation than any other state in the nation, said Richards, who works for the United States Geological Survey at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison.
There are nine deer establishments with positive CWD still in business, seven of which have seen additional cases of CWD on their properties, according to the DATCP records.
"The existence of CWD in these facilities constitutes a clear, persistent and probably increasing risk to the integrity of the wild deer on the other side of the fence," Richards said.
But a senior DATCP official said the focus of the approach is to keep the CWD contained and away from the population of wild deer. Until 2013, the herds at the CWD-positive facilities in Wisconsin were killed and the sites were disinfected.
The new approach "is meant to mitigate the risk of moving the disease … off the fence," said Amy Horn-Delzer, veterinary program manager.
Horn-Delzer added that it is up to the owners of the facilities to manage the spread of the disease within their own properties.
"We do not want to put other breeding farms at risk," he said. "We do not want to put the population of wild deer at risk, so that's the risk we look at."
The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is unclear if this deadly disease can still be transmitted to humans, although research has shown that eating CWD positive deer meat can infect macaque monkeys. Signs of the disease, which affects deer and elk, include weight loss, stumbling, drooling and aggression.
There are 380 commercial operations of deer and elk in Wisconsin, distributed in almost every county in the state. Some of them have been in operation since the 1970s and are generally divided into two categories: breeding farms and hunting ranches.
Breeding farms raise deer to sell for slaughter and for ranches that sell hunting experiences in fenced properties. They also sell deer to other breeding farms that seek to introduce new genetic lines in their herds. The industry has come under fire from some hunters who feel that keeping and hunting animals behind a fence gives hunters an unfair advantage over their prey.
300 positive CWD tests have been conducted on 24 deer farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin, according to state records. Most of them have been found since 2013, the same year that the DATCP, which shares the regulation of deer farms with the state Department of Natural Resources, began to allow hunting ranches and breeding farms to continue operating despite having the disease in their facilities.
Before 2013, all animals in commercial deer operations that tested positive in CWD were slaughtered. State law allows authorities to test animals and, if warranted, kill the herd to prevent the spread of the disease. Owners can receive up to $ 3,000 in state and federal funds for each animal slaughtered.
Open hunting ranch despite 84 cases of CWD.
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 ranch called Wilderness North.
Despite having more positive cases than any other captive deer operation in Wisconsin, the ranch continues to sell hunts priced between $ 4,000 and $ 9,000 each, with the option of a "gold search", with no listed price, that promises to deer with antlers of 200 inches. , including all points.
Emails from Wilderness Game Farm owner Greg Flees, then-DATCP State Veterinarian Paul McGraw and Horn-Delzer program manager show that mandatory quarantines issued after detection in 2013 allow Flees to move deer from their farms of breeding, which had no detections of CWD, to their hunting ranches. One of them, Comet Creek in Shawano County, has had six deer tests with positive results for CWD since 2017.
Flees is a second generation deer breeder. He said his family has been raising tails since the 70s. Since then, Flees has become one of the best-known names in the deer breeding industry both in Wisconsin and throughout the country. Flees said that when the test results were positive on his Marathon County ranch, he did not believe it.
"Okay, we closed that property and moved a group of these deer, we never took a deer from any other place than this farm that never had a positive result," Flees said. "We put them on that property, and once they were in that landscape, for a while, suddenly, we started to get some positive aspects."
Flees said it is possible that CWD was already on the property or that it was brought by scavengers, birds or food products such as corn or alfalfa. A 2015 study shows that the misfolded protein that causes CWD, known as prion, can be absorbed from the soil to plants and infect deer.
Proposed emergency rules – then withdrew
In May, Walker announced a series of actions aimed at curbing the spread of the CWD. Requested the DATCP to develop an emergency rule requiring improved fencing and to prohibit the movement of live deer from the 55 counties of the state listed as affected by CWD, which means that an infected deer was detected there or within 10 miles of the county.
The Republican governor also requested the DNR state to create emergency rules that would have prohibited hunters from transporting corpses of deer outside the counties listed as CWD affected to unaffected counties.
"We need to protect Wisconsin's hunting traditions and long-standing heritage by working together to contain the spread of chronic disease in deer," said Walker.
In spite of that, the citizens' meeting of the DATCP, composed of persons appointed by Walker, voted in favor of not taking any action in the governor's request for emergency rules. Now, the agency is carrying out a longer and more regular regulatory process to require double or improved fences for moose and other farms without white tail and is prohibiting farms from transporting live animals outside the counties affected by CWD.
The Board of Natural Resources, also staffed by Walker, proceeded with an emergency rule to require improved fencing, including a second fence about 8 feet high or an electric fence for white-tailed deer farms.
In October, the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules, controlled by the Legislature and reviewing the regulations of the agency, voted to maintain the fencing requirements for deer farms, but eliminated the DNR emergency rule that would have Limited movement of corpses of deer from counties affected by CWD in this hunting season.
While the committee survived, the agency's citizens board had already modified the DNR fencing rule so that the industry complies with the new regulation until September 2019.
That time is important because the emergency rule will expire on February 27, 2019. When the DNR staff was asked if that means that the deer can simply wait until the rule expires to avoid increased fencing requirements, said Scott Loomans, Advisor of DNR policy initiatives. email that the agency is working on a permanent rule to avoid that.
The owner of the Woods and Meadow Game Reserve, Scott Goetzka of Warrens, said the cost of compliance is too much for him and for other deer in the state.
"Because I feel that this is driven by politics, not by science or veterinary science, within two years, if they do not like it or if the CWD continues to spread, they will come up with something else they should do," Goetzka said. "They basically legislate you out of business."
The deer look for answers.
No matter how he got to his hunting ranches, or to the state, Flees said he and other deer farmers in Wisconsin are looking for genetics to fight chronic wasting disease.
Over the past year, Flees said he has been working with a researcher to breed deer with genetic markers that show resistance to CWD. Flees hopes that in five years he can have a resilient herd.
"Let the deer do our work, and if we solve this problem of resistance, let's find out how the state can do the same in its herd."
Other research suggests that it could be a long time until these answers are available.
"We do not know how the prion proteins of the CWD can change over time to influence both infection and mortality of different genotypes and populations of deer," according to an article written in June by Michael Samuel, a professor emeritus of ecology at wildlife at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There are still many uncertainties that make clear predictions about the long-term evolution of resistance to CWD difficult."
Meanwhile, the spread of CWD in Wisconsin continues. On November 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.
"I think the challenge with the CWD is that it has been found both in nature and on farms," said Konkle, the acting state veterinarian. "We do not know what happened first and, at this point, I'm not sure it necessarily matters, it's a challenge for our agencies dealing with deer raised on farms and wild deer to try to manage."