GILMAN – The largest depopulation of a deer farm in Wisconsin history is scheduled to take place this month at a Taylor County facility, according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The action was ordered by DATCP after chronic wasting disease was discovered at the facility, Maple Hill Farms near Gilman, in August 2021.
Wrangling about details of the depopulation, including whether some bucks could be sold and transferred to a CWD-positive shooting preserve, the source of indemnity and method used to kill the animals, has delayed the process until this summer.
About 325 to 350 white-tailed deer are in pens on the 40-acre property, said Laurie Seale, owner of Maple Hill Farms.
The number isn’t known with certainty because fawns continue to be born at the site.
“(CWD) is devastating me and my business,” Seale said. “I know some of my animals will test positive, but it’s wrong to kill all of them.”
Seale started deer farming in 1989; the primary revenue was obtained by selling big-antlered bucks to hunting ranches.
Maple Hill Farms shipped 387 deer to 40 facilities in seven states since July 2016, according to DATCP records.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease of deer, elk and moose caused by an infectious protein called a prion that affects the animal’s brain, according to the CWD Alliance. The disease is mostly spread through close animal contact but the prions are also stable in soil and water.
The disease has not been found to cause illness in livestock or humans. However, health officials do not recommend humans consume meat from a CWD-positive animal.
Since being found in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD has been documented in 30 states and several foreign countries, according to the National Wildlife Health Center of the U.S. Geological Survey. The disease was detected in Wisconsin in wild and captive deer in 2002.
Wisconsin has 301 registered deer farms and 38 are CWD-positive, according to state data. Twenty, or 54%, have been found to be CWD-positive in the last three years. Twenty of the 38 have been depopulated and indemnity paid to the owners.
The disease was found at eight Wisconsin captive deer facilities – in Eau Claire, Langlade, Outagamie, Portage, Sauk, Taylor, Vilas and Waukesha counties – in 2021 alone, according to DATCP reports. Two more, in Walworth and Waukesha counties, were added this year.
The disease also has continued to spread, slowly but unrelentingly, among Wisconsin’s wild deer.
Regulations, enforcement and technology are failing to prevent the spread of CWD in both the deer farming industry and the wild deer herd.
And the ramifications of the disease, including closing down businesses, tying up agriculture and wildlife officials and costs to taxpayers, continue to mount.
Seale said she doesn’t know how the disease found its way onto her farm. Maple Hills Farm has a double-fenced perimeter and had been a closed herd since 2015, she said, and was attempting to cultivate a CWD-resistant herd through selective breeding.
She lamented that work on her farm to identify more CWD-resistant strains of deer will be wiped out with the depopulation.
The first CWD-positive animal found at the site was a 6-year-old doe born at Maple Hills, Seale said. At least one of its fawns has also tested positive as have several other animals since.
The last animal Maple Hills Farm transferred in was from a Pennsylvania herd that is CWD-free, Seale said.
Seale sought permission last fall to sell and transfer some mature bucks to a CWD-positive hunting ranch, a move she said would have provided her revenue to feed her remaining animals and saved taxpayers money. It ultimately was denied by DATCP since the farm was under quarantine.
Federal indemnity will be used to compensate Seale for the elimination of the captive herd, according to Kevin Hoffman, DATCP public information officer.
The federal fund allows a maximum payment of $3,000 per animal.
Maple Hill Farms stands to be the largest CWD-related deer farm depopulation in state history both in number of animals removed and size of indemnity payment.
The largest previous depopulation was in November 2015 when 228 deer were killed by DATCP at Fairchild Whitetails in southeastern Eau Claire County.
The state paid the farm owner $298,000 in indemnity in that case. Thirty-four deer from the culled herd tested positive for CWD.
State agriculture officials have allowed more than a dozen CWD-positive deer farms to remain open, but on May 18 did depopulate Van Ooyen Whitetails in Antigo. That action, the first in more than a year, removed about 50 deer. The animals were killed by sharpshooters.
Indemnity payment to Van Ooyen also came from federal funds, according to DATCP. The amount was not disclosed.
Seale refused a DATCP plan to kill her deer with sharpshooters and instead will pay a veterinarian to remove them by lethal injections.
“I’ve always taken very good care of my deer,” Seale said. “That’s why I said I don’t care what it costs me, if I’m forced to do a depopulation, I’m going to do it the most humane way possible.”
The depopulation is expected to take from two to four days. Personnel from DATCP, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will be involved.
All dead deer will be removed from the site and tested for CWD.