July 11, 2005

Experts to Discuss Dear Disease in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. -- Chronic wasting disease has been in the U.S. deer herd for at least the past 30 years. Questions about why it got there and how it spreads have been around for just as long.

Experts on the disease gather in Madison this week to share their research on the disease found in the Wisconsin herd in February 2002, the first time it was discovered east of the Mississippi. The symposium of researchers, academics and wildlife officials will give them a chance to swap information and strategies on a disease that has spread beyond the Colorado areas where it was first discovered.

"In some respects, we know so much more than we did 10 years ago," said Debbie McKenzie, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Science and a chair of a panel this week on the prions linked to CWD.

"Are we going to have a way of preventing it two years from now? No."?

State and federal officials organized their first symposium on the subject in Madison three years ago, not long after it popped up in the state deer herd. This year's three-day event features a series of panel discussions on such topics as how the disease is spread and how some states have tried to contain it within their deer populations.

More than 350 people had registered as of Monday afternoon, with representatives from at least 40 states, Canada and several European countries.

"My personal goal in putting together the program is to do that one-stop shopping to really bring people up to speed in a short time frame so they can go back to their states with the best knowledge that they can get," said Bryan Richards, the CWD project leader for the National Wildlife Health Center that's part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers are still trying to pinpoint the cause of the disease, which is in the same family as mad cow disease and the sheep disease scrapie. Scientists believe it is caused by misshapen proteins, called prions, found in the brain and nerve tissue. The illness attacks the nervous system, causing the animals to grow thin and die.

For years, it was believed to be confined to parts of Colorado and Wyoming but has since appeared in states as far south as New Mexico and as far north as Canada.

Experts say there is no scientific evidence that CWD can infect humans, but the World Health Organization advises people not to eat any part of a deer with evidence of the disease.

In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resource has set a goal of reducing the deer herd in infected areas as much as possible as a way to limit its spread.

The state has also tried a series of proposals to get hunters on board in their effort, including a program requiring them to bag a doe in certain areas before they can take a buck and another to reward them for killing an infected deer.

"We know that we're making progress in reducing the number of deer. Are we affecting the amount of disease spread? It's too early to get a measure of that," said Julie Langenberg, the Wisconsin state veterinarian.

Still, some of those efforts have caused friction between wildlife officials and hunters.

Last week, the DNR announced special October hunts aimed at reducing the deer herd would be replaced by a four-day anterless-only hunt in December. The change must be approved by Natural Resources Board, which oversees the DNR. Critics had said the special October hunts disrupted the traditional nine-day hunt in late November by affecting deer patterns.

State Rep. Scott Gunderson, who chairs the state Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, said state officials erred in initially announcing they wanted to eradicate the herd from infected areas. He said hunters knew it would be impossible to eliminate an entire population of deer in a specific area, and the policy was an overreaction that has exacerbated distrust by some hunters of the DNR.

According to the DNR, the deer population in the heart of the area where the disease was first found was 14,700 in fall 2002. Two years later, it was 10,800.

Gunderson, an avid hunter, said part of the problem has been the lack of answers researchers have over what causes the disease and how it's spread.

Wildlife officials pushed for a statewide ban on baiting and feeding deer, practices that cause deer to gather. Lawmakers later settled on a compromise that allowed wildlife officials to ban the practices in infected areas.

"That's the biggest concern with hunters is that they don't know what the end game is," said Gunderson, R-Waterford.


On the Net:

Chronic Wasting Disease Symposium: http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/whealth/issues/CWD/conference.htm