State gets passive as CWD spreads

By Bill Lueders

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project director

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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One Response to “State gets passive as CWD spreads”

  1. Rebecca Katers says:

    Excellent article on a scary topic. It reminds me that I need to try harder to stick to a vegan diet.

    It’s disturbing to read another example of human leaders who are incapable of addressing a serious new problem until it’s too late. Every political party does it, but Republicans seem to do it more spectacularly.

    I fear this incapacity is going to kill us all sooner or later, … and possibly sooner, given the wide variety of risks accelerating along with our society’s technological, scientific acceleration.

    If CWD cases are already at 5% in Wisconsin, it’s truly frightening to me. Won’t this cross over to elk, moose and other wildlife? Can we be certain it won’t adapt and cross to horses, cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas, and similar livestock?

    It may be expensive to eradicate, or at least limit its spread, but the costs of doing nothing could be HUGE.

    Republicans are allowing Gov. Walker to spend billions of our tax dollars on ineffective “job creation” in Wisconsin, but aren’t willing to spare a few million for addressing this CWD crisis???

    Deer hunting is big business in Wisconsin, with an estimated $1  billion in annual economic impact. And Wisconsin farmers net roughly $3 billion annually, with much of that income resulting from livestock.

    CWD may threaten a significant portion of this $4 billion in income each year. So how can CWD be ignored?

    Back in 1999, when Mad Cow disease was more commonly discussed following the deaths of thousands of British people, I had an uneasy feeling that our U.S. and Wisconsin governments were (once again) downplaying an important public health risk in the U.S.

    At that time, all the official reports said Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was extremely rare in the U.S. Government reports said only 2 or 3 cases in the entire U.S. had been traced back to exposures in the United Kingdom.

    But in the summer of 1999, a woman shopping at my rummage sale in Green Bay said she was going to Madison to visit a 30-something relative dying of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. And one of my mother-in-law’s best friends died that year in Green Bay of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that she had acquired a few years earlier on a trip to England.

    If such cases were so rare in 1999, how could I be only 1 person removed from having contact with 2 victims? I don’t have many social contacts in my life, so one contact should have been extremely unlikely for me, and two, impossible.

    Was the government suppressing public awareness of a larger number of cases in the U.S.? Or is there a serious lack of coordinated reporting of cases by the medical community and/or poor data gathering by our governments?

    How often are Creutzfeldt-Jakob victims misdiagnosed as regular Alzheimers patients?

    I would love to learn more about the differentiation, tracking and recording of Alzheimers, BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakobs, Mad Cow, and CWD cases in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

    Is there a reliable, honest official registry for these diseases in Wisconsin now? If not, why not? Are any private non-profit groups pushing for this?

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