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Governor to call special session to address chronic wasting disease

May 7, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by Sarah Wyatt
Gov. Scott McCallum pledged Tuesday to call a special session of the state Legislature next week to give lawmakers a chance to quickly address the outbreak of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin.

The governor's announcement came after Republican and Democratic lawmakers working on a compromise plan to fill the state's $1.1 billion shortfall agreed Tuesday to spend $4 million to test Wisconsin deer for a deadly brain disease.

"Getting a handle on, and appropriately managing, this animal health crisis is crucial. It is not a political issue; it is a cultural issue and a health issue," McCallum said in a statement. In a special session, lawmakers are allowed to consider only the topic designated by the governor. Lawmakers currently are in special session to deal with the state's budget shortfall caused by falling revenues.

The plan approved by the conference committee Tuesday to help manage chronic wasting disease also would give the Department of Natural Resources the temporary ability to regulate the feeding of wild animals, which wildlife officials say could promote the spread of the disease in deer and elk.

The proposal, which must be approved by the full Legislature and McCallum, would authorize the DNR to allow certain state or federal officials to shoot deer from roadways and helicopters to manage the disease until at least Sept. 1, 2003, in the area of the state where infected deer have been discovered.

The agency would have to return to the Joint Finance Committee for permission to make those regulation abilities permanent.

Fourteen deer in the Mount Horeb area have tested positive for the disease, which causes deer to waste away and die. It is the first time it has been found east of the Mississippi River.

Steve Miller, administrator of the agency's Division of Land, said the $4 million would allow the DNR to create its own testing center, with help from the University of Wisconsin, so state officials would not have to send deer tissue samples to a laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

"We know there's the support out there to move this along and we can start doing some things to get it going," such as lining up staff and equipment, he said.

The DNR is planning to issue "scientific collectors" permits next week to landowners in the area where infected deer have been found, allowing them to shoot as many deer as possible, Miller said.

"The so-called easy part is pulling the trigger," he said. Then the deer need to be collected, tested and disposed.

The DNR is considering dumping the carcasses in landfills or liquifying them and sending the goo through the sewer system to a wastewater treatment facility, Miller said.

The process would eliminate the infectious agent responsible for the disease. But Miller stressed the state is still studying the method to determine if it would pose no harm to the water system.

The Natural Resources Board still needs to pass emergency rules to move forward with a plan to use landowners, hunters and sharpshooters to kill all 15,000 deer in the 287-square-mile area of Dane and Iowa counties to stem its spread to other parts of the state. That is expected to happen in June.

Until then, the department will attempt to test all the deer killed by private landowners for chronic wasting disease, officials said.

The eight members of the bipartisan conference committee agreed Tuesday to take $2 million immediately from the DNR's wildlife damage program for herd monitoring and sampling, equipment, supplies, travel and staff costs.

The department would have to draft a detailed plan to manage the disease before requesting the additional $2 million from the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. Only $1 million of that $2 million could come from the wildlife damage program, which pays farmers for damages that wild animals cause to their crops.

The conference committee is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans as well as members of the Assembly and Senate. A compromise bill must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor to become law.

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