ROCK FALLS — There have been no documented cases of chronic wasting disease making the cross-species jump from deer to humans, but the possibility that it someday could has hunters concerned.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’d eat that deer.’ But would I turn around and hand it to my grandchildren and say, ‘Here, have a piece of venison from Grandpa’s deer,’ and then find out down the line that it turns out that is does something 20 years from now,” said Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team member Mark Noll of Buffalo County. “We need a lot of research about what this disease can do.”

At the Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team’s Feb. 27 meeting, the question was posed to about three dozen members of the public attending the meeting whether they would eat the venison from a deer that returned a positive test. Two hands went up, answering in the affirmative.

CWD is a prion-based disease of deer that is contagious and always fatal to the animal that contracts it. The Centers for Disease Control advises against eating meat from a CWD-infected deer.

“It hasn’t jumped the species barrier; mad-cow did,” Noll said. “The CDC says if you get a positive deer, don’t eat it.”

“To date, we don’t have any scientific proof of any transfer of this disease to humans. To date,” said Advisory Team chairman Dave Zielke of Eau Claire County. “Ten years from now, we don’t know. It’s a personal choice for each and every hunter who takes a deer, if it tests positive, whether you want to eat that meat or not.”

Between members of the Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team and the public commenting at the meeting, opinions on how to respond to the disease ranged from mandatory testing on all deer harvested in the region to letting the disease run its course.

Last March a 2-year old doe was the first deer in the county discovered with CWD, prompting the DNR to increase testing efforts in western Eau Claire County and parts of adjacent counties. Following a positive test for CWD, state law requires a baiting and feeding ban be put in place in counties within a 10-mile radius of the positive test. In this case, that ban affected Eau Claire, Chippewa, Dunn, Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties.

“Recognizing that so many counties were impacted by that deer, the DNR thought it would be prudent to bring together a citizen advisory team to help us navigate the response to CWD and provide a public participation opportunity,” said Bill Hogseth, DNR wildlife manager for Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.

At the recommendation of the advisory team, the DNR created a surveillance area around where the original deer tested positive for CWD and a tighter focus area around the positive test. In these areas, the DNR issued 108 surveillance permits to landowners with the requirement that any deer taken with a surveillance permit would be tested for CWD. Between September 2018 and February 2019, 29 deer were killed by hunters using a surveillance permit and tested for CWD.

Including deer taken during hunting seasons, car-killed deer and reports of sick deer responded to by DNR officials, 238 deer were tested in the surveillance area, 61 were tested in the focus area, and 1,663 were tested in the six-county area between March 1, 2018, and Feb. 19, 2019.

Hogseth said the DNR had a goal of testing 310 deer in the surveillance area and 70 deer in the focus area. Assuming a 1 percent disease prevalence, that goal would have given the DNR more than 90 percent confidence in detecting the disease in the surveillance area and just under 50 percent in the focus area.

During November’s gun-deer hunting season, two mature bucks were found to have CWD. One of the deer deemed to have CWD was a 3-year-old buck shot in the town of Brunswick. Another buck officials believe was 4 or 5 years old was killed in the town of Drammen close to the border with Brunswick, Hogseth said.

The two additional CWD cases show that the doe found last March was not an isolated case, Hogseth said. One of the positives came from within the focus area, and the other was from just outside the focus area.

“Our goal would have only given us 50 percent confidence of finding a deer, and we still found a deer that tested positive,” Hogseth said. “For me, the takeaway is that we’ve got some prevalence in the area. There’s more than just a few deer with the disease walking around Rock Creek and Brunswick townships.”

While most agreed little could be done to stop the spread of CWD outside of hoping for a cure or increased resistance to contracting the disease, several committee members recommended mandatory testing in the Chippewa Valley.

“We’ve got people in our county who say, ‘Don’t test. If you don’t test, you won’t get the disease,’ “ Noll said. “When it comes to voluntary testing, we’ve got some real naysayers.”

“Mandatory testing is the only way we’ll ever cure this thing,” said advisory team member Al Brown of Chippewa County. “Otherwise, we’re going to sit and slow the spread for the rest of our lives.”

The Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team will return to their County Deer Advisory Councils to come up with additional ideas for the continued response and further testing for CWD and then bring those ideas back to the Advisory Team to decide on any changes they would like to see made.

“We’re not going to fix CWD right now. We don’t have the ability to do that,” Zielke said. “But we can ... make our best effort to understand what CWD is doing to our area and how prevalent it is. We have to try to get a handle on what this disease means.”

The public will have opportunities to weigh in on the region’s CWD response at county advisory committee meetings and at spring hearings. For more information, see dnr.wi.gov/About/WCC/springhearing.html.