February 25, 2006

Herd it's Improving

Four years later, elk farmers bounce back from CWD scare

 

By LAURA BAYARD

Daily News Staff

 

TOWN OF FARMINGTON ‹ Elk seem to be getting a bum rap.

Ask Diana Susen, who owns and operates Meadowcreek Elk Farms with her husband, Bob.

The discovery of chronic wasting disease in a Wisconsin deer in 2002 triggered stringent state requirements that also applied to elk. Many consumers worried about venison and elk meat being infected with the disease.

But elk are not the problem, Susen said.

One elk in the state has been found to have CWD, compared to 33 deer, according to Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

³We havenıt made any secret of the fact that this is a whitetail deer (problem),² Gilson said.

Still, elk farmers and deer farmers alike were hit hard.

³It has crippled the industry, but it certainly didnıt shut us down,² said Susen, who raises about 46 elk on her town of Farmington farm.

Sales decreased after CWD was found in Wisconsin, but she has rebounded nicely. Meadowcreekıs sales have increased 25 percent each year since, she said.

Her secret to the comeback was teaching the public about elk products.

³Itıs education and weıre involved in promotional activities,² she said. ³I think thereıs a growing interest in consumers in knowing where their food is coming from.² Studies have not proven meat from an animal infected with CWD can harm humans, both Gilson and Susen said.

³The World Health Organization, after examining the science behind it, has said there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease is passed to humans through eating,² Gilson said. ³Thereıs less panic than there was. There was so much fear all the way around when this was first reported.² Susen said she is confident in the safety of elk meat, and has testified to the state Legislature about CWD.

³I wouldnıt be in the business (if there was a problem). Iıd be out of the business,² she said.

The bigger concern may be economic.

³(The hunting industry) is huge. So if our whitetail herd comes down with CWD and disappears, itıs a huge economic impact,² Susen said. ³Itıs something thatıs out there. I am concerned because I wouldnıt want the disease to spread in the wild herds. Iım very confident itıs not in the farms.² There is no cure for chronic wasting disease, which causes deer and elk to become thin, act abnormal and die.

For farmers, the difficulty has been dealing with the backlash of CWD fears, both consumer perception of the farms and increased regulations.

³The fears are primarily economic because they have born the economic brunt of this disease,² Gilson said.

After the discovery of CWD, all farms were required to test every deer or elk slaughtered for the disease. Because it is found in the brain, animals cannot be tested until death. Farms also were required to tag all their animals, something many elk farmers were already doing voluntarily for business reasons, Susen said.

Many deer farmers, however, had a tougher time tagging their animals.

³How are they going to get an ear tag on those guys?² Susen said of white-tailed deer, which tend to be more skittish than elk. ³The reason people have gone out of the business is because they canıt handle the regulations.² 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 more friendly.

ŒŒWe still have a viable deer and elk industry in the state,ıı said Espe, who raises 25 elk on a farm near Monticello, south of Madison.

According to Gilson, about 700 farms are still licensed in Wisconsin, not much less than the estimated 700 to 800 elk and deer farms in the state when CWD was discovered. Still, those farms contain thousands fewer animals than were believed to be in Wisconsin before CWD was detected.

Espe said game farms were once blamed as the source of the disease in the wild herd.

ŒŒI think we have been vindicated,ıı he said. ŒŒLook inside the fences and you are not seeing the disease.ıı

 

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

 

Chronic wasting disease and its impact on Wisconsin farms

 

 WHATıS NEW: Four years after chronic wasting disease was discovered in deer in Wisconsin, the state still has nearly 700 licensed deer and elk farms, but they contain thousands fewer animals than in the years before chronic wasting disease was discovered.

 THE DISEASE: Chronic wasting disease is fatal, causing deer and elk to grow thin, act abnormal and die. There have been no studies proving that eating meat infected with CWD is detrimental to humans.

 THE NUMBERS: Of the 13,000 farm-raised deer or elk that have been tested for the disease, 34 tested positive for it. Of those positive tests, 33 were deer and one was an elk.