A confined deer in one of Wisconsin's wildlife education centers. The state also has 338 hunting ranches and registered deer farms. (Contributed photo)
A confined deer in one of Wisconsin's wildlife education centers. The state also has 338 hunting ranches and registered deer farms. (Contributed photo)

Allowing deer farms to keep their herds after an infection suspected in rise of CWD cases

Of the more than 400 cases of chronic wasting disease detected at Wisconsin deer farms and hunting ranches since the fatal illness to deer was first detected almost two decades ago, more than 100 have occurred during the past 15 months, state statistics show.

That uptick in confirmed cases is prompting growing concerns among many hunters that the spread of the disease and its impact on deer hunting’s future can be traced, in part, to a 2013 relaxation of rules regarding how to handle infected animals on deer farms.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection figures detail 405 CWD cases reported at 27 farms and hunting ranches statewide since testing for the illness began in 2002, when the disease was discovered in the state. 

Of those, 105 — 26 percent — have occurred since November 2018, a sign of the spread of the disease that poses a significant risk to the future of Wisconsin’s deer herd, two leaders of deer management efforts in western Wisconsin said. 

“It seems like a lot of times when you see a case of CWD, there is often a deer farm nearby where there have been positive (CWD) tests,” said Mark Noll, chairman of the Buffalo County Deer Advisory Committee. “The deer farms just aren’t regulated well enough, and it seems like that’s a part of this disease spreading.” The state is home to 338 registered deer farms and hunting ranches.

DATCP officials said they’re concerned about the rising number of CWD cases confirmed at deer farms and hunting ranches, and the agency is closely monitoring the disease at those locations. The higher CWD numbers at deer farms are in part because of increased testing, they said, and not necessarily too little regulation.

Noll, a dairy farmer in rural Alma, said many hunters he knows have expressed concern about the lack of state regulation of deer farms and the corresponding risk of spreading CWD from those farms to the rest of the state. Part of the problem, he said, occurs because infected deer escape deer farms and interact with other deer.

DATCP statistics show 181 deer escaped from deer farms and hunting ranches between 2013 and 2018 because of storm damage to fences surrounding those farms or because gates were simply left open. 

For a three-year period where double-fencing restrictions were relaxed, deer within a farm could also interact and spread diseases by rubbing noses with a deer on the outside. The double-fencing rules were re-established in 2018. 

During the past 18 years, the state Department of Natural Resources has found 6,492 cases of CWD in Wisconsin after testing 245,065 deer. Of the state’s 72 counties, 55 are now considered to be impacted by CWD, meaning a case has been confirmed there or the county is near a confirmed case. 

The disease has spread rapidly in the past couple of years, prompting worries among many in Wisconsin that the deer-hunting tradition that is so much a part of the state’s cultural fabric each autumn could be endangered. As more deer contract CWD, they said, fewer people will want to hunt the animals.

“The lack of state management of CWD is a big problem,” said David Zielke, an Eau Claire resident who is chairman of the Eau Claire County CDAC. “And a big part of that problem is the lax management of deer farms in this state.”

CWD has not been shown to cause illness in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies recommend people not consume meat from CWD-positive animals.

Most of the state’s positive CWD results have occurred since 2013, when DATCP decided to allow some deer farms and hunting ranches to continue operating after the disease was discovered in deer herds at those locations. Previously, entire herds at deer farms and hunting ranches were killed when CWD was detected.

Since 2002, CWD has been detected at 27 deer farms, records show. Herds at 17 of those locations were killed as a result. 

Currently, seven hunting ranches and three deer farms are operating despite positive cases of the deer disease at those locations.

“Certainly that is a concern,” Zielke said of the policy change that allows herds where a CWD positive test has occurred to continue to live. “By doing that, it’s like they’re just asking for the disease to spread.”

The rise in the number of CWD cases at those sites is a growing worry, deer hunters across Wisconsin said. Some of them credit the rise of CWD — caused by a misshaped prion, or protein, that causes holes to form in the brain — in part to more relaxed regulation of deer farms and ranches. 

However, not all hunters believe deer farms pose a significant risk for spreading CWD. Terry Oswalt, who lives and hunts in Marathon County, called CWD concerns “overblown” and said deer farms “serve a good purpose and shouldn’t shoulder the blame” for concerns about the disease.

Local government leaders in at least one northern Wisconsin county don’t believe state regulation of deer farms goes far enough. Bayfield County Board supervisors have approved an ordinance mandating that any deer relocated to the county must have a certificate of veterinary inspection and be enrolled in the state’s herd status program. In addition, deer farm owners must submit paperwork showing deer they bring in were not kept within 10 miles of a known CWD outbreak for five years prior.

That action was prompted by fears a deer herd in the county may have contracted CWD from a deer farm in southern Wisconsin where those animals were located previously.

Whitetails of Wisconsin, which represents deer farms and hunting ranches in Wisconsin, was not available for comment for this story. The organization objects to the more strict deer farm regulations, a spokeswoman for the organization said, noting increased regulations for such farms could force operators out of business.

As CWD continues to spread and cause more concerns, Noll said other Wisconsin counties may consider adopting similar regulations to those in Bayfield County. 

“A lot of people feel like if the state isn’t going to do more, we’re going to have to step up to control this problem,” he said.