- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin deer farms and hunting preserves would no longer have to participate in the state’s chronic wasting disease monitoring program to receive Department of Natural Resources approval for their fences under an emergency rule the agency’s board is expected to take up next week.

The exemption is meant to spare farmers the cost of complying with stiffer federal herd monitoring requirements to remain in the program, DNR officials say. Critics counter such a move could allow CWD to spread.

The fatal neurological disease was first found in Wisconsin in 2002. No human cases are known, but biologists advise hunters not to eat animals that have tested positive for the disease.

“If anything, the department should be increasing the fencing requirement for deer herds and not undermining the increased federal regulation,” George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said in an email.

Right now, deer farmers and ranchers must enroll in the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s CWD Herd Status Program to win DNR approval for single fencing and be allowed to export deer. The program requires farmers and ranchers to keep records of every deer they add or subtract from their herds as well as records of all CWD test results on their deer. If they don’t join the program, they must install double or solid fencing.

Single-fenced farms larger than 80 acres that aren’t enrolled in the monitoring program must test some of their deer for CWD annually.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture imposed new standards on such monitoring programs in 2012, including requiring farmers to keep two forms of identification on each animal and have a licensed veterinarian physically count each deer once every three years. The deadline to complete the first census is the end of this year.

Paul McGraw, Wisconsin’s state veterinarian, said that as of last month more than 100 deer farms hadn’t completed their counts. Officials with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are worried those farms won’t get the counts done in time and will be forced out of the monitoring program. DNR officials wrote in a memo to their board that they’re concerned small farms won’t be able to afford the cost of hiring a veterinarian to conduct their inventories.

Once out of the program, they’ll need double or solid fencing, another pricey proposition, McGraw said. The DNR memo said officials are worried people may simply decide to release their deer into the wild. It’s unclear whether such releases would be illegal; the DNR memo said they are, but Administrative Warden Peter Dunn said the agency can’t hold people accountable for releasing domestic animals into the wild.

Regardless, “we’d rather not put them in a position where that’s an option,” McGraw said.

The DNR’s proposed emergency rule would allow farmers to opt out of the monitoring program without upgrading to double or solid fencing. Large farms would not have to test deer to remain single-fenced. The farms still wouldn’t be able to export deer, however.

The DNR board is set to vote on the rule Wednesday during a meeting at the agency’s Madison headquarters.

Rick Vojtik and Laurie Seale, president and vice president of Whitetails of Wisconsin, an association of Wisconsin deer farmers and hunting preserves, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment on the rule.

Meyer said in a telephone interview that he couldn’t believe the DNR was suggesting farmers would simply release their herds rather than comply with the requirements and the agency should step up fence enforcement rather than go soft on it. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection announced Thursday that a deer on an Oneida County hunting preserve tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

The DNR noted in its memo that farmers must still build fences and won’t be able to export deer off their farms, decreasing the chances CWD might spread. McGraw said he doesn’t believe the emergency rule would lead to the disease spreading.

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