May 26, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg JonesHayward -- Worried about the growing number of cases of chronic wasting disease, 36% of Wisconsin's deer hunters are considering not hunting this fall, according to a new statewide poll.
If indeed that many hunters -- about 248,000 -- decide not to head into the woods this fall, it could be disastrous for the state's economy and efforts to reduce the deer population. Deer hunters -- who pump an estimated $1 billion into the Wisconsin economy each year -- are the primary tool the state uses to cull a bulging herd.
If a large number of hunters are unwilling to kill deer because of concerns about eating venison or because their spouses refuse to serve it to their families, the deer herd will continue to spiral out of control, meaning more car-deer accidents and more crop damage.
"That's part of our nightmare -- people not hunting," said state Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. "All the sharpshooters in the world can't kill half a million deer." The statewide poll, conducted by St. Norbert College, is the first quantitative look at the effect that chronic wasting disease could have on the fall hunt since the fatal brain disease was first discovered in three bucks last fall in south-central Wisconsin. Since then, 15 more deer have tested positive for the disease.
In the poll, 36% of those surveyed said they would consider not hunting deer in Wisconsin, while 58% said the disease would have no effect on their hunting plans and 6% were unsure.
The St. Norbert College Survey Center randomly polled 405 white-tailed-deer hunters throughout the state by telephone between April 29 and May 6. An overwhelming majority had heard of chronic wasting disease. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The survey showed 42% had concerns about eating wild venison, while 56% did not and the rest were unsure. Even though there is no evidence to show that the disease can be transmitted to humans, the World Health Organization recommends that venison from infected deer not be eaten.
Last year, the Department of Natural Resources sold 688,540 deer hunting licenses. If there were 36% fewer hunters, that would mean 248,000 fewer people roaming the woods in pursuit of whitetails.
Three Hayward men who hope to open a private lab to test deer for the disease paid $8,800 to have St. Norbert conduct the poll. William "Butch" Johnson, Brent VanVonderen and Ed Haugen formed Wildlife Support Services to come up with options for hunters to get their deer tested at a reasonable price.
Dave Hawkey, vice president of field operations for Whitetails Unlimited, was surprised to learn that more than one-third of hunters surveyed are thinking about not hunting.
"It's a strong tradition of deer hunting in the state. I would assume more guys would be dyed in the wool," Hawkey said.
"I am concerned that the people (who are) not quite devoted to the sport and only hunt one or two days a year, they won't participate," said Hawkey, whose group, based in Sturgeon Bay, represents 65,000 hunters nationwide. "If it's one time we need all the hunters to step up to the plate, it's now. Less hunters are just going to make the situation worse."
At a time when the state faces a record $1.1 billion budget deficit, fewer hunters would mean less revenue flowing into the DNR, money that pays for wildlife biologists and wardens, said state Sen. Dave Zien (R-Eau Claire).
Zien said he has heard from many who no longer plan to hunt or say they'll pass up does and just wait for trophy bucks because they don't want to waste their time on shooting deer simply for venison. Zien also is worried that infected deer will be found outside the outbreak area.
"If this snowball progresses, this 36 percent will perhaps double. Fair-weather hunters will book themselves another vacation. This could have a devastating effect on our economy," Zien said.
Tom Hauge, the DNR's director of wildlife management, wasn't surprised by the number of hunters in the survey who said they might change their hunting habits. In public meetings around the state, Hauge has heard the concerns of hunters worried about the disease.
But, he said: "Considering not hunting and actually not hunting are two different things. We're four months out in front of the hunting season. I also know there's a tendency when things start to get close -- and deer hunting is an emotional thing for people -- (that) having to give it up is very hard to do."
Tests would appease fears
Testing carcasses to know for sure the venison is OK to eat would calm the fears of those who hunt far from the outbreak area near Mount Horeb, said Johnson, owner of Johnson Timber Corp. in Hayward.
"People up here are concerned that they're being left out on testing" of deer, Johnson said.
Added VanVonderen, a deer farmer and owner of a landscaping company: "Doesn't Bayfield County or Marinette County deserve to know if (chronic wasting disease) is up here?"
Chronic wasting disease, which is related to mad cow disease, was first discovered in February in three deer that were killed near Mount Horeb during last fall's hunt. After killing and testing about 500 deer in that area, the DNR found an additional 15 that tested positive.
To try to stop the spread of the disease, the DNR wants to kill all deer -- about 15,000 -- within a 361-square-mile area where the infected animals were found by allowing landowners to kill the animals on their property.
In addition, the DNR also wants to expand the fall hunt in 10 surrounding counties and cut the deer population in half.
Even though researchers are working on ways to speed up testing and come up with other tests for the disease, right now there's not enough lab capability to handle a sudden influx of thousands of tests. That might change by this fall, but it's very likely that anyone who shoots a deer outside the 361-square-mile "eradication zone" won't be able to test the animal.
That's because there are few labs in the United States that test for the disease. A lab in Madison is gearing up to begin testing for the ailment, but it probably won't be ready for a few months.
A private venture
Johnson, VanVonderen and Haugen said they hope to step in and open a private lab that could handle brain tissue samples for as many as 1,000 deer per day. They're willing to pay $750,000 to $1 million to buy the equipment, lease a building, and hire the pathologists and technicians to staff it.
They hope to keep the cost to $50 per test. To keep testing costs down, they plan to seek funding from private companies with a stake in a healthy deer herd, such as insurance firms and sporting goods manufacturers.
Aside from giving individual hunters the opportunity to see whether their venison is safe, the three said the lab could help test deer throughout the state to see whether the disease has spread.
"Really, the key is to know if it's up here in the north," said Haugen, a Hayward veterinarian who has worked with the Clam Lake elk herd that was reintroduced to the state several years ago. "We have to learn who has the disease."
The three have met with DNR and state agriculture department officials to discuss their proposal. To open a private lab, Haugen said, they would need cooperation from state and federal officials to gain access to positive tests for chronic wasting disease. Those would be needed as a control in the lab to test for the disease.
One stumbling block is teaching hunters how to collect the brain tissue needed for testing, Johnson said. They're proposing a program, similar to hunter education programs, where hunters would learn how to collect the samples and put them into containers to send to the lab.
"Some say, 'You're just out to make money on this thing,' " Johnson said. "Yes, we hope to be profitable, but we hope to make testing affordable for hunters."
They admit the clock is ticking. Deer bow-hunting season starts in September.
"We can't wait a year," said VanVonderen. "If the money isn't available (for testing deer throughout the state), we can't wait. We have to mobilize the hunters now."
Hauge, of the DNR, said the agency needs as much help as it can get to test deer for the disease. But he added it's up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to authorize testing for animals so hunters can be assured test results are accurate.
"We have been trying to communicate to the federal government the scale of the issue here and the need for them to rapidly move through their decision-making process," Hauge said.
"I don't think they would open without first passing those tests from the feds. A hunter, if he submits a specimen from a lab, has a reasonable expectation that the test result will be a valid test result. That's what the federal government wants to ensure."