Wis. deer, elk farms weathering CWD scare

WAUSAU, Wis. — About 700 deer or elk farms are still licensed in Wisconsin, defying predictions of the industry's demise made four years ago when a deadly brain disease was discovered in the state's wild deer herd.

But those farms contain thousands fewer animals than in the years before chronic wasting disease was discovered, said Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department.

"I think we expected the number of farms to drop more than it has and are glad for those people who have been able to hang on," she said. "They weren't shut down completely, but it has been hard on them the past four years."

The government itself has had a hand in reducing the herds. Its regulations led to the killing — the government calls it depopulating — of 677 deer or elk, involving 17 different farms, Gilson said.

They represent herds with at least one diseased animal, herds with a direct link to a diseased animal or herds near where the disease was discovered in wild deer, Gilson said.

So far, state and federal governments have paid $765,800 to those producers to compensate them for their losses — an average of about $1,300 per animal for the 601 cases that have been settled, Gilson said.

Joel Espe, president of the Wisconsin Commercial Deer and Elk Farmers Association, said some farms that had annual sales of more than $500,000 shut down and moved to where the regulatory climate was friendlier after chronic wasting disease was discovered in Wisconsin.

"We still have a viable deer and elk industry in the state," said Espe, who raises 25 elk on a farm near Monticello, south of Madison. "It crippled our industry, but it didn't put us down entirely."

Chronic wasting disease was discovered in February 2002 in some wild deer killed near Mount Horeb in southern Wisconsin, the first time the disease had been found east of the Mississippi River. It has since been discovered in wild deer killed in nine southern counties.

The first case of the disease in a farm-raised deer was reported in September 2002 at Buckhorn Flats Game Farm near Almond in Portage County. Since then, diseased deer or elk were also found on six more farms, the Agriculture Department said.

The discovery of the disease changed dramatically how the farms do business, as more regulations were put in place and markets outside Wisconsin for the commercial deer and elk dried up, at least for a while, Gilson said.

"I think many of them have other sources of income as many farmers do," she said.

There is no cure for chronic wasting disease, which causes deer and elk to become thin, act abnormally and die. The test for it can only be done after an animal is dead. The disease was first found in Colorado in 1967.

Deb Myers of Endeavor, who owns 30 deer at OakRidge Whitetails, said there is still a market for farm-raised deer. And for farms that have been monitored for three years for chronic wasting disease, new markets in other states are opening up again.

"I think the ones that hung in there and saw this through will be glad they did," she said.