Because deer on game farms are private property, the former owner of Buckhorn Flats in Portage County received nearly $136,000 for deer the USDA killed there in January 2006. / Patrick Durkin/Correspondent
Wisconsin on Wednesday used $465,000 from its cherished Stewardship Fund to buy an 80-acre farm that will remain closed to the public indefinitely because it once housed North America's worst case of chronic wasting disease.
The Department of Natural Resources bought the property, located west of Almond in Portage County, from Patricia Casey. Her boyfriend, Stan Hall, used nearly 70 acres of her land for his Buckhorn Flats deer farm, which was enclosed with an 8-foot-high fence.
The state discovered CWD there in September 2002. Forty months of litigation ensued before Hall let the U.S. Department of Agriculture "depopulate" the large pens in January 2006. The shooters killed 76 deer, 60 of which carried CWD, a nearly 80 percent infection rate.
However, no one knows what happened to an additional 40 deer, supposedly trophy bucks, Hall said were there in summer 2005. All we know is that someone cut a hole in the high fence, and Hall reported it before the shootings began. Neither locals nor DNR wardens ever reported an influx of fugitive bucks in the months that followed.
In all, 82 Buckhorn Flats whitetails tested positive for CWD between 2002 and 2006, according to Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She said this remains the most CWD-infected farm on the continent, and probably the world. Further, two other Wisconsin game farms that previously did business with Buckhorn Flats produced nine CWD cases.
Because game-farm deer are private property, Hall was paid for his losses. He received $135,976 ($6,386 from Wisconsin and $129,590 from the federal government) for the 76 deer the USDA shot, and four female deer that died during the 40-month legal standoff, Gilson said. All told, Casey and Hall received nearly $601,000 for sick deer and contaminated land no one else would want.
Although CWD spreads slowly in the wild, the prions thought to cause CWD remain infectious for years. Therefore, the state can't allow public access to its new land, fearing contaminated dirt could leave on shoes and boots to be spread elsewhere.
So why would the DNR, with Gov. Scott Walker's approval, hold its nose and pay about $94,000 more than the property's appraised value for this toxic waste site? And why would it make the buy with funds usually reserved for protecting critical habitats for the public, especially after Gov. Walker froze most Stewardship spending in early February?
"Stan Hall had the state over a barrel," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Meyer said federal regulations required Hall to maintain the property's fence for only five years after the USDA killed the deer. If the state hadn't bought the property, Hall and Casey could have neglected or removed the fence, thereby exposing wild deer to infectious prions.
"This cost is a small price compared to the price we'd pay later if CWD spread," Meyer said. "It's unusual, but it's wise."
The costs don't end there. The DNR now must maintain the fence, and it might build a second high fence for an estimated $40,000 inside the perimeter for insurance. Further, the agency likely will negotiate with neighbors to remove trees that could fall on the fence(s) and create openings.
Meanwhile, the state regularly will collect soil from the property for tests on laboratory mice to monitor prion contamination and infection.
Fine, but the research shouldn't end there. With grants and financial support from hunting organizations, this could be a unique deer research facility. By capturing deer, and collaring and monitoring them, researchers could test vaccines or see if prions infect the deer.
Mule deer that contracted CWD at a Colorado facility in 1977 were exposed only 2.2 years after the previous herd was removed and the grounds disinfected. It's already been five years since Buckhorn Flats held deer.
Whatever happens next, let's not forget what we were told when Wisconsin discovered CWD in February 2002. That is, CWD is relevant to all Wisconsinites, and requires the combined efforts of the DNR, DATCP, the University of Wisconsin and Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet nine years later, although Buckhorn Flats was DATCP's responsibility when this storm hit, we're hijacking Stewardship funds to cover the aftermath.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.