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Massive deer kill doubtful before Fall

May 15, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist and Meg Jones
State wildlife officials said Tuesday it was unlikely that hunters will kill massive numbers of deer near Mount Horeb this spring and summer to control chronic wasting disease.

Property owners will probably kill only about 500 deer in a 287-square-mile zone -- a region that contains 15,000 deer that the Department of Natural Resources wants to eliminate.

"Once the glamour is over -- if that is what you want to call it -- people are going to go on to other pursuits," said Bill Mytton, a big-game ecologist for the DNR, adding that thickening foliage is making it harder to find deer.

DNR officials told two legislative committees that the brunt of the shooting will take place this fall, when the agency hopes to expand the deer season in 10 surrounding counties to thin the deer herd.

Their comments came before committee members voted to approve a $4 million financial package that will allow the DNR and the agriculture department to fund an eradication plan. The bill backed by the committees also would allow wildlife officials to shoot deer from helicopters and would give the DNR authority to regulate recreational feeding of wild animals. Chronic wasting disease is related to mad cow disease, and its discovery has cast uncertainty over deer hunting and the safety of eating venison.

The disease was discovered Feb. 28 in three deer that were killed near Mount Horeb during last fall's hunt. After killing and testing more than 500 deer in that area, the DNR found an additional 11 that tested positive for the fatal brain disease.

The DNR wants to kill all deer within the three-county, 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb and is expected next week to issue permits to landowners that would allow them to hunt deer on their property. As an added control measure, the DNR also wants to expand the fall hunt in 10 surrounding counties and cut the deer population in half.

8 deer killed at park

The first step toward eradicating deer took place Tuesday as eight deer were killed by state and federal sharpshooters at Blue Mound State Park, west of Madison.

The deer, which appeared to be mostly younger animals, were taken by a team of 19 DNR and U.S. Department of Agriculture shooters in a hunt that began at dawn in the closed park and ended by 10 a.m., said Carl Batha, a DNR wildlife biologist.

The 1,200-acre Blue Mound State Park is typically home to 40 to 50 deer, but Batha was not disappointed that his shooters got only eight on Tuesday, the last day the park will be hunted until this fall.

"This is all new to us, so I didn't expect to get any today, but we're patient because this project is something we'll be at for the next five or six years," Batha said.

The slow start at the park underscores a knot of tough issues state officials face as they try to untangle perhaps the biggest animal health crisis in Wisconsin history.

"This is either going to be the crowning glory of the DNR, or your worst nightmare," said Rep. Neal Kedzie (R-Walworth), chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee.

Almost three months since officials first learned that three white-tailed deer infected with the disease were killed last fall, officials briefed legislators on the latest developments. Lawmakers were briefed on: The hunt: As hunters grow weary of killing deer, or toward the end of the fall hunting season, the DNR says it will start using hunting parties of sharpshooters, most of whom will be public employees. Helicopters and planes would be called in to spot deer and herd them to locations where they could be shot in groups, said Steve Miller, administrator of the DNR's Division of Land.

Shooting from the air will be a last resort. "I think that the very, very last thing will actually be shooting from helicopters," Miller said.

The DNR also rejected calls by some lawmakers to impose bounties as an incentive to thin the deer herd.

Testing: Although hunters are uncertain about the safety of venison, Wisconsin does not have any capacity to test for chronic wasting disease.

"To my mind this is the biggest variable," said Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell.

The $4 million funding package that legislators are set to vote on today will include money for the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison. That could help test perhaps 15,000 deer this fall.

The state wants U.S. Agriculture Department officials to approve a rapid test by this fall that most deer hunters could use to see whether their deer were safe. Bazzell said the rapid test is akin to an early pregnancy test: If the test is positive, hunters would use a second test to verify that the deer had the disease.

Bazzell told lawmakers that his department will not be able to tell hunters for certain that the deer they shoot is safe to eat.

Disposal: Officials have not yet figured out how they will dispose of dead deer. They expect to get rid of thousands, especially if hunters are reluctant to eat venison.

Early plans to dump the deer in landfills have hit a roadblock. Dane County officials are concerned that the prions -- the abnormal proteins in the brains of diseased deer -- could breach the clay-lined county-owned landfill and jeopardize groundwater.

The DNR had been leaning toward purchasing a sodium hydroxide digester that renders deer into an inert substance, but it is now thinking about using incinerators. One option would be to use a Wisconsin foundry to do much of the work, but there are still issues to work out such as how to transport thousands of deer.

Rhinelander hearing

As lawmakers in Madison heard details on the agency's plans, dozens of concerned hunters showed up at a DNR hearing in Rhinelander on Tuesday night to try to get some questions answered about the disease.

The DNR's third public meeting on the disease drew 360 people. Even though chronic wasting disease has been found in white-tailed deer more than 200 miles away from here, some people are worried about the health of the herd in Oneida and Vilas counties.

"The concern is how it's going to affect the deer hunters," said Paul Gay, who lives in Sugar Camp and has hunted for 25 years in Oneida County.

Jeff Scandin, who lives in Rhinelander, doesn't hunt but enjoys eating venison. However, Scandin said he'll probably stop eating deer meat.

"I'm not sure I care to eat venison anymore until they take care of" the disease, Scandin said.

The crowd asked questions about how the DNR plans to get rid of so many carcasses and how long hunters will have to wait until they can be sure their venison is safe to eat. But state assistant veterinarian Bob Ehlenfeldt said that although the DNR hopes to test many deer in the chronic wasting disease management zone, it's unlikely hunters in other parts of the state will be able to test their deer.

That's because there aren't enough labs to test for chronic wasting disease and it will take a while for a Wisconsin lab to begin testing for the disease.

In the meantime, hunters who bag bucks outside the chronic wasting disease management zone will have to either discard their deer or take a chance on eating the venison.

"I know that's not the news you want to hear," Ehlenfeldt said.

Jeff Rodziczak, who owns a deer farm in Oneida, said he's no longer able to sell his animals since the chronic wasting disease outbreak. He has eight pregnant does on his farm that will end up delivering approximately 16 fawns, and "apparently I'm going to be stuck with all my fawns because I won't be able to sell them."

The last two public hearings on chronic wasting disease will be held tonight in Waukesha and Thursday in Green Bay.

------------ Lee Bergquist reported from Madison; Meg Jones reported from Rhinelander. Journal Sentinel correspondent Kevin Murphy, reporting from Blue Mound State Park, contributed to this report.

------------ For more information about chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's deer herd, visit the Journal Sentinel's special online section at www.jsonline.com/news/state/cwd

DEER DEVELOPMENTS

Tuesday's developments regarding chronic wasting disease:

-- The Department of Natural Resources said only about 500 of 15,000 deer located near Mount Horeb are likely to be killed before fall.

-- Two legislative committees endorsed a bill that would permit wildlife officials to shoot deer from helicopters in an effort to halt the spread of the disease in the Mount Horeb area. The bill, which comes before the full Legislature today, also provides $4 million to battle the disease.

-- More than 300 concerned hunters showed up for a DNR hearing in Rhinelander seeking answers to their questions about the disease.

-- A team of state sharpshooters killed eight deer at Blue Mound State Park as part of the eradication effort.

WHAT'S NEXT

The DNR is holding its only Milwaukee-area public hearing on chronic wasting disease from 7 to 9:30 tonight at the Waukesha County Expo Center, 1000 Northview Road.

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