Source: Holly Zachariah, Columbus Dispatch

MILLERSBURG, Ohio — Ohio Division of Wildlife employees might have outnumbered hunters in Holmes County on the opening day of gun hunting season for deer yesterday.

The state is aggressively trying to isolate and eliminate a disease that could threaten the deer population.

That includes a decision to kill what could be hundreds of deer on a private Holmes County hunting preserve because its owner did not abide by the rules of a mandated quarantine on his potentially sick herd.

In October, a deer at Daniel Yoder’s World Class Whitetails farm near Millersburg tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the first time the brain-attacking disease has been found in Ohio.

State agriculture officials say there are no signs that the disease has been transmitted to Ohio’s wild deer herd, but they still are taking extra precautions during this week’s hunting season. Among other requirements, hunters are not allowed to remove deer harvested in Holmes County.

In addition, Division of Wildlife officials are asking hunters who shoot deer within eight of Holmes County’s 14 townships to bring the deer to one of seven drop-off locations. The heads of those deer will be removed and the animal’s lymph nodes and brain stem will be sent to the Ohio Department of Agriculture for testing.

At least 700 deer have been tested since October, and no other evidence — aside from that one positive test — has been found, said Erica Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

The state had been monitoring the deer on Yoder’s farms — and at dozens of other deer farms — since April, after officials learned 125 potentially infected deer had been brought here from Pennsylvania.

In a letter sent to Yoder and dated Nov. 26, the Ohio Department of Agriculture said the state’s Division of Animal Health had ordered all the deer be killed because “all white tail deer present at the preserve have been exposed to a dangerously contagious and infectious disease and therefore endanger the health and wellbeing of animal populations in the state of Ohio.”

The letter goes onto say that Yoder did not abide by the quarantine rules that should have prevented the movement of any deer on or off the property at his two breeding facilities, also in Holmes County.

Yoder could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The letter, which was signed by state veterinarian Tony Forshey, did not say how soon the animals might be destroyed.

Hawkins said because it is a hunting preserve, officials must figure out how many deer there are and determine the best methods for euthanizing them.

She said that in recent weeks, at least two deer harvested in other areas have had deer tags that indicate they came from World Class Whitetail Farms, and state investigators are still trying to figure out what that means: whether they had at some point escaped or if something else is happening, Hawkins said.

“But it is now imperative that we move forward with the destruction of the herd because we have an owner who willfully broke a quarantine and we have to minimize the risk,” Hawkins said.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, which first was diagnosed in the late 1960s among captive mule deer in Colorado, often appears first in captive deer stock and then spreads to the wild herd. It was first detected east of the Mississippi in Wisconsin in 2006, and it since has been found in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan, among other states.

Part of the challenge in fighting the spread of CWD, said Geoff Westerfield, an assistant wildlife management superintendent for the Division of Wildlife, is keeping tabs on all of the state’s private deer farms, which are supposed to be licensed by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Not all are diligent about their paperwork.

Holmes County, in particular, has a large number of captive deer farms because the industry tends to be strong among the Amish, Westerfield said.

Since October’s first CWD diagnosis in Ohio, the state has been trying to inform the public about the disease. “We’ve done a ton of outreach here,” Westerfield said. “We’ve talked to taxidermists and meat processors. We’ve talked to the bishops in the Amish community. We’ve had officers going door to door. Our guys are calling every hunter who has killed a deer in the at-risk townships in Holmes County, asking if they submitted their deer for testing.”

The effort is entirely voluntary, however.

“Some people really don’t want to be involved with it. I’m not sure why,” said Dennis Solon, the Killbuck Wildlife Area manager, who was stationed at Miller’s Custom Meats on opening day of gun season. “Others are very cooperative.”

William Blizzard, who shot a doe on opening day hunting with his 17-year-old son, Kenneth, brought his deer to Miller’s for testing.

“I am concerned,” he said. “I heard the diseased deer was a penned deer. But those pen deer escape. The wild ones get close to the pens.”

If the disease ultimately spreads to Ohio’s wild herd, Blizzard, a lifelong hunter, said he’d at least “have the discussion” with his son and other family members about giving up hunting.

“It could be very bad if it gets out of hand,” Blizzard said. “And who knows what they’ll find out that it does to humans.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no strong evidence of CWD transmission to humans.