MADISON — Wisconsin deer farmers can opt out of the state’s chronic wasting disease monitoring program without upgrading their fences under an emergency rule the state Department of Natural Resources’ board adopted Wednesday despite concerns the move could spread the disease.
The rule is designed to save deer farms money and simplify the tangled regulatory world deer farmers face, DNR officials say. But critics fear doing away with tougher fencing standards could allow captive CWD-infected deer to escape or spread the disease by mingling with wild deer through their fences.
Deer farm regulations are a tangled web, with DNR overseeing fences and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection handling everything inside the perimeters.
Deer farms smaller than 80 acres currently must in enroll in the monitoring program to win DNR approval for single fencing and export or import deer. The program requires farmers to keep records of deer they gain or lose as well as records of all CWD test results on their deer. Farmers who don’t join the program can’t move deer and must install double or solid fencing.
Farms larger than 80 acres are generally considered hunting preserves under state regulations. To erect single fences, those farms must enter either the DATCP monitoring program or a DNR harvest program.
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That DNR program requires farmers to submit to the agency their herd’s demographics as well as CWD test results for a percentage of their deer. Farms that enroll in the harvest program can import deer but can’t export them. Farms that don’t join either the DATCP or DNR program must use double or solid fences. Regardless of whatever program a large farm is enrolled in or not enrolled in, they must test a percentage of deer for the disease under DATCP rules.
Federal agriculture officials imposed new standards on state monitoring programs in 2012. Enrollees must keep two forms of identification on each animal and hire a veterinarian every three years to count their animals. The deadline for the first census is the end of this year.
DNR officials say they’re worried that deer farmers, particularly those who run small hobby farms, might not be able to afford to comply with the federal regulations, be thrown out of the monitoring program and have to shell out money they don’t have to upgrade to double or solid fencing. They also say they want to reduce testing redundancy for large farmers.
The agency crafted an emergency rule that would allow deer farms to exist outside of the monitoring program with only single fencing. The rule also allows large farms outside of both the monitoring and harvest programs to build single fences.
George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now leads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, urged the board to reject the rule. Relaxing the fencing mandate for farms outside the monitoring program could lead to more escaped deer that could spread CWD.
The DNR recorded 29 escapes this year alone, Chief Warden Todd Schaller said. Just last week state agriculture officials announced a deer on an Oneida County hunting preserve tested positive for the disease.
“The DNR fencing requirement is the last safeguard to prevent further CWD contamination of the wild deer herd,” Meyer said.
Schaller told the board that he doesn’t believe the changes will enable CWD to spread. Fences must still meet DNR specifications, he said. Farms outside of the monitoring program still can’t legally move deer and large farms must still test deer under DATCP requirements. The DNR inspects each farm’s fence at least once a decade, he added.
That gave some board members pause. William Bruins said the DNR should pay more attention to farm fences more often, noting storms and weather can knock down sections of fence.
DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede pledged the department would address inspections in a permanent version of the rule. Satisfied, the board ultimately adopted the emergency regulations on a unanimous vote.
CWD, a fatal neurological disease, was first detected in Wisconsin in 2002. No human cases are known but biologists advise hunters not to eat animals that have tested positive for the disease.