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88% plan to hunt this fall, survey says


November 17, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist and Bob 
Riepenhoff lbergquist@journalsentinel.com

On the eve of the most important deer hunt in Wisconsin history, 88% of state residents surveyed who held deer hunting licenses last year are planning to head back into the woods this year, according to a Journal Sentinel poll.

The poll suggests that, despite the presence of chronic wasting disease, the number of hunters this year might not be as low as the sluggish sales of hunting licenses have indicated.

But even a 12% drop would mean more than 80,000 fewer hunters than last year, a conservative estimate that doesn't take into account all the out-of-state hunters who might choose to stay home.

The state Department of Natural Resources reported that sales through Thursday were running 19% behind last year's pace -- a small improvement from the pace of the last few months.

Tom Hauge, the DNR's director of wildlife management, said he was pleased to see "people are making their minds up and buying licenses." In the end, though, the drop in hunters will almost surely be the largest in state history.

In the poll of 600 residents who held licenses last year:

-- More than half said they were concerned about chronic wasting disease, with nearly one in five identifying themselves as "very concerned."

-- More than half said they supported plans by the DNR to wipe out the deer herd -- estimated at 25,000 -- in a pocket west of Madison where the disease has been found in the wild.

-- Almost nine out of 10 said they were still either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to eat Wisconsin venison from this year's hunt if given the opportunity.

-- About one-fifth of those who plan to hunt said they intend to change the way their deer are processed, and slightly more than half of those said the change was due to chronic wasting disease.

-- Of those who do not plan to hunt this year, 58% said the presence of chronic wasting disease was the reason.

The poll was conducted for the Journal Sentinel on Nov. 7 and 8, and it has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The nine-day hunt begins Saturday.

Since the discovery of chronic wasting disease, there has been little doubt that the number of hunters this year would drop. The question has been: How much?

Two polls much earlier in the year, one by St. Norbert College in May and another by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in June, each showed a higher percentage of hunters considering staying home.

Richard Bishop, a UW-Madison economist specializing in natural resources, said the Journal Sentinel poll results are encouraging.

"It sounds like people are putting a lot of thought into what kind of risk they are willing to accept," Bishop said.

A low turnout, if it comes with a corresponding low deer kill, would lead to a host of new problems for the state -- everything from a rise in deer-car accidents to a drop in habitat for other wildlife. But the 12% decline predicted in the Journal Sentinel poll does not necessarily mean that 12% fewer deer will be killed, according to DNR researcher Robert Rolly. That is because the casual hunter who stays home is probably not as deadly as his hard-core brethren.

Rolly plugged data from 40 years of deer hunting into a statistical model he created and concluded that a 10% drop would result in 3% fewer deer being shot.

There also have been questions about whether those who go hunting will bother shooting anything but bucks, the prized kill in any hunt. The Journal Sentinel poll found that 84% of hunters said they would be willing to kill an antlerless deer this season.

But there are those, such as Tim Gapen of Wisconsin Rapids, who plan to be more selective.

Gapen waffled for months over whether to hunt because of concerns over chronic wasting disease. He finally decided this month to go, but with conditions.

"If it's not six points or greater, I won't kill it," he said.

Controversial plans Some hunters irritated, some see no options

Uncertainty has hung over the gun season like a stubborn Lake Michigan fog.

In February, state officials learned that three deer shot during the 2001 season near Mount Horeb in Dane County tested positive for chronic wasting disease. Since then, it has shown up in 37 other free-ranging deer in the area, as well as in game farms in Walworth and Portage counties.

The DNR has responded with a plan to kill all deer in the 411-square-mile zone where the infected wild deer were found. It has added special hunts in the zone and in the surrounding region. And it has quarantined the deer farms -- and some farms that did business with them.

As for the hunt itself, the agency plans to test every deer killed in the eradication zone, thousands of deer in the 10 surrounding counties, and about 500 deer in every other county statewide.

In the Journal Sentinel poll, 59% of hunters said they "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" with the DNR's eradication plans. In turn, 31% "strongly disagree" or "somewhat disagree" with the big kill. Some of the criticisms are philosophical, some practical.

One particular irritant is the "earn-a-buck" regulation in the eradication zone and the surrounding counties, where hunts began in spring. To shoot a buck, hunters must first kill a doe. The DNR reasoned that the policy would prevent hunters from shooting a buck and going home; hunters complain that it makes no sense when the goal is to kill all the deer.

Another source of controversy has been the statewide imposition of a ban on baiting. Wildlife officials argued that putting out food brings deer together while they are eating, encouraging the kind of face-to-face contact that is believed to spread the disease.

The ban especially angered archers who use bait for close shots, and homeowners who feed deer to watch them. Opponents tried to kill the ban, but a legislative committee on Nov. 7 extended it to April 1.

Gapen, who hunts near Clam Lake in Ashland County, has been a longtime advocate of baiting to lure deer within range. Gapen, 56, recently had heart surgery. His ardor for long walks in the woods, driving the deer ahead of the hunters, is gone.

"I am not going to start making drives," he said. "I have walked those woods for a long time, and I am not going to do it again."

Even among those who don't like the DNR's efforts, however, there are those who think the agency is doing the best it can.

Kevin McCabe, a Wauwatosa chiropractor who owns land in Barneveld, has a master's degree in wildlife ecology. His father, who bought the property where he now hunts, followed the legendary Aldo Leopold as chairman of the department of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin.

"I don't like killing all of the deer," he said. "With no deer, it's going to destroy our hunting tradition. The deer are so healthy. I feel I have to apologize to each and every one of the deer I shoot."

But McCabe doesn't see another option. If the disease has been in Wisconsin for only a few years -- the best guess of most researchers -- the DNR might still have a shot at snuffing it out.

"If they are wrong and CWD is throughout the whole state, then we are wasting our time," McCabe said. "But I think the risk is too great. We know it's here and it has to be controlled."

Measuring risk To some hunters, messages are mixed

Chronic wasting is part of a family of diseases that includes mad cow in cattle, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. Although there is no evidence that it can jump species, past experience with mad cow jumping to humans and scrapie jumping to cattle has raised safety concerns -- both for humans and for the state's dairy herd.

Wisconsin officials have gone to great lengths to tell hunters that chronic wasting disease is not a health hazard. Their mantra, borrowed from the World Health Organization, is that there is no scientific evidence that the disease can infect humans.

Nevertheless, hunters are being advised to wear latex gloves when they field dress and butcher deer, and to avoid cutting into the lymph glands, the spinal cord and other potentially infected tissue.

To some, it's a mixed message.

"I think the focus of the DNR, from day one, should have been strictly relative to an animal disease," said Greg Kazmierski, owner of Buck Rub Outfitters in Pewaukee and co-founder of the 3,000-member Wisconsin Deer Hunters Coalition. "To even sidetrack a little bit on an unproven, unsubstantiated, potential (human) health risk was a mistake on their part."

Many hunters appear to be doing their own seat-of-the-pants assessment of risk. After all, people die deer hunting every year -- there were seven in 2001 -- and about 5,000 people die each year from food-borne diseases, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Based on what I've read, I'd be more concerned about buying a chicken in a grocery store and getting salmonella poisoning than I am about getting CWD," said Tom Williams, 45, a deer hunter for 30 years.

Williams will be hunting in Richland County, which is part of the 10-county region around Mount Horeb. Any deer he shoots this year, he will eat.

For other hunters, though, the risk is too great -- in part because of the perception that the venison they pick up from a meat processor might not come from the deer they dropped off.

Mark Woerishofer, 52, of Pewaukee hasn't missed a season in more than 20 years. But this year he is staying home.

A machinist and part-time handyman, he traditionally hunts with his 29-year-old son and some friends on state land in Forest County, in northeastern Wisconsin.

His hunting group has a wild game feast every year, but venison from the last hunt was absent from the menu this year.

Woerishofer said he'll miss getting away with his son, who also is not hunting.

But if he doesn't hunt, he won't have to worry about getting someone else's venison.

"I don't know what the pot might hold," he said.

About 25% of the 200 processors that usually butcher deer have opted out of the business this year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

And those remaining butchers already are reporting a downturn in business during the archery and early deer hunting seasons, said Terry Burkhardt, director of meat safety and inspection for the agency.

"What we are seeing early on is that hunters are choosing to cut it up themselves and hold it, or just dispose of the animal," Burkhardt said.

Count Tom Frankiewicz, 49, of Ixonia as one of those who are going to hold on to the deer meat to see what the DNR testing turns up.

In a normal year, the high school teacher and his family eat venison from three deer. This year, they are limiting consumption to one or two at the most.

"Why push your luck?" he asked.

In a series of questions in the Journal Sentinel poll, hunters were more apt -- by an average of 20 percentage points -- to eat venison than were the rest of the family.

That's the scenario McCabe is facing. His land near Barneveld is thick with deer. McCabe has killed 12 deer over the past 10 years, and each season his hunting party shoots more than a dozen.

McCabe does not believe that chronic wasting disease can make the jump to humans. But his wife, a veterinarian, has asked him to keep venison out of the house this year.

"She has asked me purely as my wife -- not as a veterinarian," McCabe said. "She does not feel that any level of risk is worth the chance."

Population problem Mild winter would make situation worse

On one point, no one disagrees: Wisconsin has too many deer.

Since 1982, the deer population has doubled to 1.6 million. This year's herd is tied for the second-largest, behind only the 2000 herd of 1.8 million.

Separate from the chronic wasting dilemma, the DNR had hoped hunters would kill at least 500,000 deer to ensure that the herd remains manageable. Wisconsin has taken out more than a half-million deer only once before -- again in 2000, when hunters registered more than 615,000 kills.

Wisconsin probably can manage a year of overpopulation.

"If we have one bad year and everyone wakes up and goes hunting again, it probably won't hurt us that much," said Tim Van Deelen, DNR deer research specialist at Rhinelander.

If not, too many deer could mean serious problems.

The booming deer population already has been especially hard on vegetation beneath the browse line -- the first 7 feet off the ground.

Wisconsin's commercial forests aren't immune, either. Deer have damaged the regeneration of tree plantations in Sawyer and Oneida counties owned by Stora Enso, the Finnish forest product company. Deer have always caused damage, but the forest was able to recover, said Fred Souba, vice president of forest resources for Stora Enso North America.

"What we are seeing now is more concentrated damage," he said.

The number of deer carcasses on Wisconsin roadways also has become more concentrated.

Last year, motorists reported killing nearly 46,000 deer. But the number of vehicle-deer collisions could actually exceed 88,000, according to the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, because not all accidents are reported and many deer die after leaving the roadway.

In a 2000 report, the alliance stated that the average cost of an accident -- before deductibles -- was more than $1,800.

If deer become even more plentiful, "we know there will be an increase in auto-deer collisions," said Eric Englund, executive director of the alliance.

A severe winter would help, at least in northern Wisconsin, where sustained periods of below-zero temperatures and heavy snows could cause starvation. The last winters to do that were in 1995-'96 and 1996-'97.

"Nothing goes to waste in the woods," said retired DNR deer biologist Keith McCaffery. "When a deer dies, it gets absorbed into the system by predators and scavengers."

The National Weather Service, however, is predicting a warmer-than-normal winter.

In southern Wisconsin, with a milder winter and more food from farm fields, "deer are going to be in people's faces," said John Kubisiak, a retired DNR researcher from Wisconsin Rapids.

The situation is compounded in the eradication zone, because the goal is so daunting and because landowner opposition to the DNR efforts is so widespread. To pick up after the season where the hunters leave off, wildlife officials are contemplating the use of snares and sharpshooters -- even herding deer with aircraft, and then shooting them en masse.

David Ladd of Dodgeville, who is one of Wisconsin's foremost authorities on deer management, thinks the state should pay landowners inside the eradication zone a bounty of $50 to $100 for each deer shot on their property.

"You might say it's a lot of money," said Ladd, chairman of the big game committee of the Conservation Congress, an advisory body to the state Natural Resources Board. "But what does deer hunting mean to Wisconsin?"

Small scale Mom-and-pop shops take the worst hit

Most people would answer that question in cultural terms -- the tradition of the hunt, the role it has played in binding generations of families, the connection it helps maintain to a simpler form of life.

The hunt means much less, comparatively, in dollars and cents.

The current estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the size of deer hunting's economic impact in Wisconsin is $534 million. Put another way, everything that deer hunters spend money on -- from guns to clothing to travel to land use -- is equivalent to one-third of the annual revenue generated by Briggs & Stratton Corp.

The impact of some hunters' staying home this year is likely to be modest, in part because those people likely will spend the money on something else anyway. Bishop, the UW-Madison economist, has concluded that a 10% decline in hunters would mean the loss of $5 million in Wisconsin's $173 billion economy, much of it attributable to the absence of out-of-state hunters.

Still, some people will feel that loss.

"Chronic wasting disease is going to hurt -- there's going to be problems," said Rob Southwick, a fish and wildlife economist based in Florida. "You're not going to see any impact in downtown Milwaukee -- the real impact will be in the rural areas."

Prince Corp. of Marshfield, a wholesaler and manufacturer, estimates that the ban on baiting alone will cut into revenue by $300,000, or about 3% of the agricultural supply segment of its business.

The privately held company is big enough to take the hit.

But Dennis Wessel, one of the company's owners, said many of his mom-and-pop customers are feeling the pinch.

Customers such as Patti Rantala.

Rantala and her husband, Ron, have owned the Country Feed and Pet Store in Iron River in Bayfield County for five years. Feed sales are down more than $35,000 since August, and one large customer -- a hunting group that feeds deer over the winter -- canceled an order for more than a semitrailer load of deer feed. The couple cut store hours and asked their banker for a $20,000 loan to tide them over the winter. Rantala's husband has gone back to driving a truck.

"I don't think that we can make it through another year like this," Rantala said.

Chronic wasting disease has been a double whammy for Ken Reber of Wisconsin Rapids.

His business -- Feed Store Inc. -- sells wild-animal and pet feeds and archery equipment.

"We got hit bad," Reber said. "Our sales were down 53 percent in August and September, and we haven't recovered."

Ordinarily, Reber would sell eight or 10 bows a day -- upward of $600 apiece -- in August, September and October.

Then a front-page article in the Journal Sentinel on July 21 reported on three hunters who dined at annual wild game dinners and subsequently died of rare brain disorders that might somehow be linked to eating deer.

"That was the nail in the coffin," Reber said.

Kazmierski, owner of Buck Rub Outfitters of Pewaukee, said his business dropped 40% after the report on the three hunters.

"That article is what put the link in people's minds to a human health risk," Kazmierski said. "Prior to that, it appeared to be a business-as-usual year."

Business has recovered some, but it is still down 30%, he said.

Gander Mountain, which caters to outdoorsmen across the Midwest, has tried to counter food safety concerns by holding seminars on proper ways to butcher a deer. It has also helped Whitetails Unlimited of Sturgeon Bay and others pay for a marketing campaign -- "Help Fight CWD" -- that encourages people to hunt this season.

"We have a vested interest that is deep-seated and very personal," said Mike Sidders, marketing group manager. "Our motivation is the protection of the deer herd. We are extremely concerned about CWD in general, and especially what will be the long-term ramifications."

Even the DNR could feel a bit of an economic pinch.

If people shy away from deer hunting, it could hurt programs that range from stocking fish and pheasants to reimbursing farmers for wildlife damage to maintaining habitat on 5 million acres of public land.

The DNR gets about $21 million a year from deer licenses -- or about one-third of all state dollars for such programs.

Long-term outlook Hunters might have to live with disease in herd

Although the coming hunt should provide some answers about the presence of chronic wasting disease, it won't provide any closure. Wisconsin could be grappling with chronic wasting disease for years to come, perhaps decades.

Laboratory tests for chronic wasting disease could be as much a part of the sport's future as blaze orange and dead deer strapped to bumpers.

Wisconsin hunters could eventually learn to live with the disease, as many have in Colorado and Wyoming, where chronic wasting disease is endemic.

Rob Forth hunts where the disease has festered for decades, on land near his home north and east of Denver. It's nothing like the lush Wisconsin landscape, especially at this time of year, when drought squeezes green from the land and the vast sky seems to stretch forever.

"Last year I saw 200 to 300 deer while hunting and I didn't see one sick animal," said Forth, a welder. "I love hunting, I hunt everything, and CWD's not going to change that."

Robert Fink of Wisconsin thinks a lot like Rob Forth.

Fink has been hunting for 47 years, and he counts every deer he has killed -- 58 to date.

"It's a tradition in my family. We eat the meat," said Fink, who lives in Racine and hunts on his land near Necedah in Juneau County.

Fink carves his own deer. His family will eat whatever he brings home. And he'll leave the worries to someone else.

"Whatever the Lord puts in front of me," Fink said, "that's what I take."

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