Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

State Takes Passive Approach as Fatal Deer Disease Spreads

Chronic Wasting Disease has risen tenfold but state has cutback testing of deer. Is political pressure to blame?

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You can practically feel Patrick Durkin’s blood pressure rising, column after column. The Waupaca-based outdoor recreation writer has devoted more than a dozen of his weekly offerings since 2009 decrying what he feels is the state’s inadequate response to the threat posed to deer by chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

His April 21 column, carried in papers including the Wisconsin State Journal and Green Bay Press Gazette, looked at a CWD hot spot in north-central Iowa County near Spring Green. There, the annual growth rate for the fatal brain disease has reached 27 percent among deer 2½ years or older.

This finding, for the reporting year ending March 31, is “unprecedented,” “frightening” and “disturbing,” various experts told Durkin. He lambasted state policymakers and hunting groups for doing virtually nothing to stop it, or even to fund basic research.

“There’ll be no shortage of shame as this stench spreads,” Durkin warned.

Durkin, in an interview, unloads the other barrel. He notes that programs like Earn-A-Buck, meant to contain the spread of the disease, have been beaten back by politically connected groups like the Hunters Rights Coalition, made up of hunting and firearms advocates.

“These aren’t Wisconsin’s best scientific minds blowing this off,” Durkin fumes. “The best scientific minds are using words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘frightening.’

 

Politicians including Gov. Scott Walker have put the kibosh on CWD-eradication strategies seen as detrimental to herd size. And James Kroll, Walker’s deer trustee, has recommended “a more passive approach” to the disease.

Durkin thinks the state’s approach has already been too passive for too long.

Tami Ryan, the Department of Natural Resource’s wildlife health section chief, admits the agency’s efforts toward the goal of containing the disease have not succeeded. “There are objectives and actions in our CWD Response Plan that we have been unable to implement, and that’s due in part to social and political factors,” she says.

An analysis of CWD test results reported on the DNR’s website shows that the number of deer being tested has gone down while the rate of infection has gone up.

Between 2002 (the first full year after CWD was discovered in Wisconsin) and 2006, an average of more than 25,000 deer a year were tested. Between 2007 and 2012, the average was just over 8,000.

Meanwhile, the incidence of CWD-infected deer has risen steadily from .5 percent in 2002 to a 5 percent in 2012— a tenfold increase in 10 years.

Dave Clausen, a veterinarian who serves on the state‘s Natural Resources Board, expects this trend to continue. “All indications are that under current policy, CWD will continue to spread across the state and will increase in prevalence where it is established,” he wrote to the DNR in February.

This could have a potentially devastating impact on the state’s deer population — or worse. Scientists have not ruled out the possibility that CWD, caused by an infectious malformed protein known as a prion, could be transmitted to humans.

Richland County resident John Stauber, co-author of the 1997 book “Mad Cow U.S.A.,” which warned of this possibility, says state officials have “circled the wagons to make sure CWD was not perceived as a threat to human health.” He believes every dead deer should be tested statewide and no deer should be processed until it tests negative.

The DNR asserts that “CWD has never been shown to cause illness in humans,” but notes that public health officials advise against eating meat from CWD-infected deer. The agency has tracked hundreds of cases where this has occurred, and knows that there are many more. This behavior, according to Stauber, increases the risk that CWD will make the species jump to humans.

“If enough people are consuming affected deer, “ he says, “eventually you’re going to have a transmission.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-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.

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