Disease on deer farms spreads as Wisconsin weakens controls

THE MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT of Natural Resources says the number of deer checked at its Upper Peninsula stations is up from last year. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Craig Porter)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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 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.

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 detection. Konkle said DATCP keeps close tabs on them, including bans on moving live animals on or off.

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.

Meanwhile, the spread of CWD across Wisconsin continues.

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The nonprofit news outlet Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

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