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CWD Brings Chill To Northwest Wisconsin


SPOONER– One could almost feel the chill go through the hunting public last November, and it had nothing to do with the temperature – Chronic Wasting Disease, for the first time, had been discovered in Northwestern Wisconsin.

A 3 1/2 year old whitetail doe, dispatched by a law enforcement officer near Shell Lake in Washburn County, tested positive for the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) or prion disease that attacks the brains of infected animals and is always fatal. Suddenly, Northwestern Wisconsin’s deer, elk and moose, which had seemed so far removed from the CWD threat in Southwestern Wisconsin, were themselves at risk.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stepped in to take control of the situation and try to determine if any more infected deer existed – so far, none have been found. But private citizens also came forward, forming the CWD Citizen Advisory Committee to work as a go-between with the DNR, hunters and landowners. On August 21 the first of several meetings on CWD in the North was held at the Spooner High School auditorium, with about 180 concerned citizens attending. Guest speaker was Bryan Richards, CWD project leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

“If you are a deer hunter, a landowner, enjoy eating venison, watching deer or managing deer, this issue will affect you,” committee member Steve Hemshrot of Shell Lake told the crowd. “How you respond to this disease is based on the information you have available to make your own decisions. Things have changed since this disease was first discovered in Southwest Wisconsin 10 years ago.”

Hemshrot stressed that Northern Wisconsin will not take the same drastic steps as the southern part of the state.

“We are not taking the same approach in Northwestern Wisconsin,” he said. “There’s no talk currently of eradication, sharp shooters or anything like that. Rather what we’re dong is getting information out to the landowner, the hunter, so we can have honest, open discussion. Unfortunately there is no good news. The disease is here. We don’t know the extent of the disease, but now we have to respond to it. This affects us all. We don’t know where this is going, just where it is today – we have one positive deer.”

But that one positive deer has hit the northern counties like a hurricane. Testing is being ongoing, and baiting and feeding has been banned within a 10-mile radius, impacting Washburn, Burnett, Polk and Barron counties.

Many in the audience felt that CWD can’t be stopped and will be here forever. CWD Advisory Team member Dave Zebro, an emploee of the DNR said that baiting and feeding may be banned forever.

“The baiting and feeding ban is permanent,” he said. “There is no mechanism to repeal it.”

The DNR wants samples from a minimum of 875 hunter-harvested adult deer during the upcoming archery and gun hunts. So far this summer, 62 deer have been tested and none have come back positive. Sampling will likely take place for several years.

“Testing is free,” said Zeckmeister. “Just go to one of the registration stations. That’s where your deer will be tested.”

Antlers can be removed before testing.

“All processors and taxidermists are aware,” said committee member Joe Weiss. “It shouldn’t affect your mount at all.”

Baiting and feeding

“The one thing that is different this year for law is the baiting and feeding ban, and that isn’t just in the 10-mile radius,” said Zeckmeister. “It includes the counties of Polk, Barron, Burnett and Washburn. The main reason behind this is deer feeding and baiting concentrates deer.

“We’re also collecting any sick deer that we find, and samples from road-killed deer. A lot of testing has been done in this area, and everything was negative until the one deer last November. We really hope that we did catch this disease relatively early. Limited in scope? Widespread in scope? We don’t know. We won’t know that until we get more testing. That’s where hunters come into play. Get your deer tested.”

Hunters can expect CWD test results in 5–7 weeks.

“In the upcoming hunting seasons there will be no changes to the season structure this year with the exception that your baiting and feeding is banned – and that does include salt blocks and the powder type stuff also,” said committee member Mark Rasmussen of Shell Lake.

Bryan Richards

Guest speaker for the night was Brian Richards, CWD project leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison.

“Chronic Wasting Disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE. A TSE is a prion disease of North American whitetail and mule deer, elk and moose,” said Richards. “CWD displays progressive neurological degeneration and it is uniformly fatal. CWD is the soule TSE disease of wildlife, the only one we’ve ever detected. The only way to look for CWD is in dead animals, and there is no treatment for CWD.”

Richards said “Chronic Wasting Disease” accurately describes the wasting away of the infected animal.

He said that even in Southwestern Wisconsin and states like Wyoming, which has many deer infected with CWD, few are seen. It takes a long time, he said, for symptoms to show up, sick animals typically don’t show themselves.

“This disease, what it does to the animal, it developes holes in the brain,” said Richards. “It’s no longer functionally a deer. Tests on dead deer turn up watery rumen contents from all the drinking, and there is diluted urine. Deer quite often die from aspiration pneumonia – they literally drown in their own fluids.”

Richards disagrees with the idea that CWD has been on the landscape forever, arguing that science indicates it has only been in Wisconsin a few decades.

CWD, he said, moves across the landscape deer-to-deer, assisted by predators and scavengers, and assisted by humans.

“For example, a hunter gets a deer with CWD in Wyoming and moves the carcass parts – the hunter brings CWD home to Wisconsin,” said Richards. “There has never been transmission of CWD observed to domestic livestock or to humans. It has never been documented.

“CWD has higher prevalence in adult deer and in males, 2–4 times higher than females. It can be passed along through saliva and blood, urine and fecal matter. Infected deer can spread the disease a long time before they appear sick. And infectious material can remain in the environment long after that deer is gone. That has been proven.

Richards also talked about baiting and feeding.

“A deer with full blown CWD salivating on top of that bait pile is moving infectious material into that bait pile,” said Richards. “Other deer come, eat that corn off the ground, and we have greatly enhanced chances of disease transmission.”

Infected deer local

Where did the deer killed near Shell Lake come from? That question has been asked since the start.

“Only one deer, a 3 1/2 year old doe, was found last fall after many, many years of disease surveillance,” said Richards. “She was exhibiting clinical signs of the disease. She’s lost her fear of humans, was heavily emaciated. So what does that suggest? Was she shedding agent into the environment? Yep. There is no doubt that animal was capable of shedding infectious agent out into the environment.

“Genetic testing was done comparing her gene type with other deer from Southwest Wisconsin. One of the suspicions early was somebody brought her here. The results, while not 100 percent conclusive, identify that she’s from here. She’s a local deer.

“How did this disease get to Northwestern Wisconsin? Completely unknown. Likely she ingested some infectious agent.”

Public comments

Some in the audience were not receptive to the idea of the baiting and feeding ban.

“I own my property, pay taxes on it, and I don’t quite understand what gives you the right to tell me that I can’t put a little pale of corn out in the evening so we can watch the deer eat?” asked one man. “Will there ever be a cure for CWD? You and I both know the answer is no. We all know that. We’re wasting a ton of money.”

Later, at the end of the meeting, committee member Joe Weiss also addressed the topic.

“On private land ownership and being told what you can do … yes, you own your land. You don’t own the deer. They are a public trust. They are all of our deer,” said Weiss.

“We tend to reduce deer to pets, so that they are no more than zoo animals. We need to look at feeding and baiting unselfishly. We need to do what is best for the deer and the environment. Deer are one of our natural resources, it is not your herd. They belong to all of us.”

The crowd applauded. Once again, the love and respect hunters have for deer was undeniable.