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Deer disease across the lake brings worry

With Wisconsin's gun deer season set to open Saturday, many hunters in the Ashland area are concerned about whether chronic wasting disease has spread to the wild deer herd.

A preliminary test of a deer removed in October from the Twin Creek Hunting Preserve near Ashland showed the animal had the disease, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection announced Thursday. The state's Department of Natural Resources now plans to take tissue samples from wild deer in the area to see whether any are infected with the disease.

Concerns about the wild population are heightened in part because an inspection of the preserve last month found several breaches in the fence and indications that deer may have moved in and out of the farm, according to the DNR.

"Right now, (hunters) are pretty worked up. They're concerned. They're very, very concerned," said Roger La-Penter, owner of Anglers All, a popular bait and outdoors shop in Ashland.

LaPenter said the news about CWD could change some hunters' plans for the coming season.

"I don't think it's going to stop everyone, but I do think it might affect the number of people who might go hunt," he said.

DNR officials had planned to hold a public information meeting Thursday night in Ashland to discuss CWD sampling this weekend and to answer questions, but that meeting was abruptly canceled Monday. No explanation was given for the cancellation, and no other meeting time was scheduled.

The DNR plans to take tissue samples from hunter-killed and car-killed deer this weekend within a 10-mile radius of Ashland, said Todd Naas, DNR area wildlife manager at Ashland. The agency hopes to collect samples of every adult deer registered. DNR staff will be taking samples at four big-game registration stations in the Ashland area, and the DNR will work with taxidermists, meat processors, and car-killed-deer contractors to collect more samples.

Two rounds of CWD testing of wild deer in northwestern Wisconsin have taken place since 2002, the most recent in 2008 when more than 500 samples were collected. No cases of CWD have been found in those deer, according to the DNR.

In Wisconsin, CWD was first discovered in wild deer in the southern part of the state in 2002. Since then, 160,269 deer have been sampled, and 1,358 in the free-ranging herd have tested positive, all in the original CWD zone.

More extensive testing of the deer from Twin Creek Hunting Preserve is under way now at a veterinary lab in Iowa. Results should be available Friday, said Davin Lopez, CWD coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. If the disease is confirmed, it will be the first instance in northern Wisconsin, the DNR said.

"The possibility that free-ranging deer may have been exposed to the disease is why we feel additional local disease surveillance is very important," said Mike Zeckmeister, DNR northern region wildlife manager.

Free-ranging deer could be exposed to CWD by a hunting preserve animal through nose-to-nose contact through a fence, Naas said. Or, if a deer escaped from the hunting preserve, it could transmit CWD to wild deer, he said.

LaPenter said hunters he has spoken to are frustrated that hunting preserves and game farms are permitted to keep deer and elk.

"The biggest thing I'm hearing is, 'Why wasn't this fixed before?'" LaPenter said. "There are a lot of real ill feelings about the game farms. ... You can regulate them to death, but if there's no one there to enforce it, it doesn't do any good."