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The big kill: will it work?;
even DNR raises questions about its plan to control deer diseases

May 5, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Ron Seely
Despite all the computer modeling and the biology and the sampling, the plan proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources to control the spread of chronic wasting disease comes down to something very emotional and very unscientific - the willingness of hunters to pull the trigger.

Dave Ladd, a long-time deer hunter and a leader in the state Conservation Congress, which advises the DNR on hunting and fishing issues, said killing so many deer, including healthy deer, has hunters sick at heart.

"It's not a good feeling to kill a deer and throw it in a Dumpster," said Ladd. He added, however, that he will participate in the hunt. The DNR has proposed the slaughter of 15,000 deer in south-central Wisconsin where testing has turned up 14 cases of the fatal brain disease. The plan calls for keeping the population of deer in the 280-square-mile "eradication zone" at zero for at least five years. The agency will also issue permits to landowners to allow them to kill deer on their property year-round. The proposals are expected to be considered by the Natural Resources Board in June.

Biologists hope that killing all the deer in the area will contain the disease, which research shows spreads more quickly through dense herds such as Wisconsin's. At stake, wildlife specialists say, is the state's deer herd, the long-cherished tradition of deer hunting, and the millions of dollars the sport brings into the state each fall. Julie Langenberg, a wildlife veterinarian for the DNR, told an anxious crowd of 1,600 last week in Mount Horeb that not controlling the spread of the disease could result in the collapse of the southern Wisconsin deer herd within as little as 10 years.

But even the DNR seems acutely aware of the potential shortcomings of its plan and of all that can go wrong to keep it from working. In announcing the proposal last week, DNR wildlife biologist Bill Vander Zouwen ended his presentation with a list of the problems that could complicate the effort. They include:

* Low hunter participation.

* Low landowner participation.

* Problems with disposal of carcasses.

* The lack of an easy and quick test for the disease.

Biologists say the goal of their plan is to make sure that any sick animals in the disease zone die or are killed before they can spread the disease.

"We want to be as aggressive as possible even if this might be going a little too far," Vander Zouwen said.

But will hunters participate, especially when the DNR has indicated it cannot guarantee the safety of the venison?

Some hunters are already saying they don't plan to hunt this year. Don Wenger, a hunter in the town of Vermont where the disease outbreak occurred, said he doesn't think the DNR's plan is based on sound science and that more extensive testing should be done before so many healthy animals are killed. He also said he objects to killing when the meat can't be used. It's a dearly held ethic among most hunters.

"I've hunted since I was old enough to carry a gun," Wenger said. "I'm through. I'm a hunter, not a killer. These people are trying to turn us into killers."

State Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, said he is pleased the DNR is being so aggressive. But Johnsrud, chairman of the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee, also said he is skeptical about enough hunters participating to get the job done.

"Will they drive down to Mount Horeb and shoot deer?" Johnsrud asked. "I don't know. I think the DNR is going to have to bring in hired guns. It's going to be a problem for them. I don't know how they're going to do it. Hunters aren't the bloody killers some portray them to be."

DNR officials say they will bring in sharpshooters to work on the ground and even from helicopters if necessary.

An equally daunting problem may be getting landowners -- especially those who have traditionally been opposed to hunting -- to allow hunters on their property. Wednesday night in Mount Horeb, Vander Zouwen had a stern warning to those landowners who are skeptical about participating.

"If you're not part of the solution," he said, "you're part of the problem."

Some landowners are also concerned about the potential safety issues of the extended hunt. Don Wenger's wife, Rosemary, said she walks or rides her bike every day near the family's home in the heart of the eradication zone. She said she's worried about her safety and the safety of others enjoying the outdoors.

"I want more assurances from the DNR," she said.

Others are concerned about the proposal to dispose of the deer carcasses in the Dane County Landfill on the east side of Madison. Tom Hauge, director of wildlife management, said negotiations are under way with the county to accept the deer.

But it may not be such a good idea, said Brett Hulsey, a county board member who serves on the county's Solid Waste and Recycling Commission. Hulsey said that in a meeting with DNR officials late last week, he and others raised questions about the cost and the safety of disposing of the carcasses in such a way.

Of greatest concern is the fate of the diseased proteins that cause the illness. They're called prions and, unlike viruses or bacteria, they're very difficult to get rid of. Who can say, Hulsey asked, whether the prions won't leak from the landfill or be carried elsewhere by rodents or birds?

Charles Southwick is a retired professor from the University of Colorado who has specialized in studying the ecology of animal populations and who has studied CWD in mule deer in Colorado. He said Wisconsin officials who plan to put carcasses in a landfill should first take a look at what happened in Colorado, where deer placed in sterilized pens that had held diseased animals three years earlier also became sick.

"I think that landfilling is a potentially dangerous idea," Southwick said. "Landfills leak."

Southwick, like some hunters, is skeptical also of the proposal to so drastically cull the deer herd rather than do more extensive testing. He said some research has actually shown that such an extensive kill outside of the regular hunting season can cause deer to move more -- exactly what the DNR doesn't want to happen.

But other hunters and experts agree with the DNR. Ladd said many agree with the DNR that hunters must play a crucial role in helping stop a disease that could forever change the outdoor sport that most defines Wisconsin.

"We're the solution," Ladd said.

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