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HUNTERS GROUP CALLS FOR QUARANTINE OF DEER FARMS TO RESTRICT FATAL DISEASE

A leading hunters group is calling for an immediate quarantine of all deer farms and hunting preserves to try to ensure that chronic wasting disease does not spread to wild deer populations.

The call by the New York State Conservation Council comes after two captive deer in Oneida County tested positive last week for the neurological disease that is fatal to the animals. The group wants the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to close off all deer farms -- there are about 400 in the state, including dozens in Western New York -- and hunting preserves and order testing of captive deer.

"The threat of having this escape into the wild and affect over 1 million white-tailed deer is a real possibility," said Wall John, legislative vice president of the umbrella group that represents more than 1,200 clubs and more than 300,000 hunters, anglers and conservationists.

"We're concerned the deer population could be rapidly affected by this," John said. He urged the state not to bow to farming interests that could stand to lose money under a quarantine.

The department, which has jurisdiction over the facilities with captive deer, did not respond to questions about the call for a quarantine.

Jessica Chittenden, a department spokeswoman, said seven deer farms -- the one where the first afflicted deer was found and six others that might have had ties to that facility -- have been quarantined for the last week.

Chronic wasting disease is a degenerative neurological illness that is deadly to some deer and elk species. Health officials have not identified any direct harm to humans or other domestic livestock from the disease.

But hunting and other groups, looking to a disease that has spread from Colorado to the Midwest and now to New York in recent decades, fear that the disease could sharply reduce the wild deer population in New York.

State environmental conservation officials have announced that they are beginning to test wild deer in the Oneida County area. To conduct a test, a deer must be killed and its brain tissue collected and examined; officials said 420 deer will be killed starting next week to run the tests.

Don Hettenbaugh, a deer farmer in Cattaraugus County, said Wednesday he feared an overreaction by state officials and hunters to the two cases of the disease that surfaced in Oneida County. He said that any government assistance to reimburse farmers for the loss of slaughtered deer would be far less than what his deer are worth. "We're concerned about the health of the deer, too, but there are all sorts of rumors about where this disease came from," Hettenbaugh said.

But John, of the Conservation Council, said every deer farm should be shut down -- banning any deer coming on or off the facilities -- until a "significant sample" is taken from the state's farms to ensure that the disease has not spread.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com