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Deer hunters fear the unknown

April 9, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg Jones
Even though it wasn't on the agenda, the deadly disease that has afflicted at least a dozen deer near Mount Horeb was on the minds of thousands of people who showed up throughout the state for the Conservation Congress spring hearings Monday night.

"I'm worried," said Lee Hutchins of Campbellsport. "When you have deer herd(ing) up in January or February, this could spread easily. It could be halfway across the state by now." Topics at the annual spring hearings, held in all 72 counties, ranged from simplifying trout fishing regulations to establishing a fall turkey hunting season in Mill Bluff State Park.

But chronic wasting disease was the hot-button issue.

Hunters wanted to know how much the disease has spread through the whitetail population, how the Department of Natural Resources plans to contain it, whether it's still OK to eat venison and how chronic wasting disease infected Wisconsin deer.

"Deer hunting is big business in Wisconsin -- it's huge," said Dennis Scheibe of Greenfield.

"If it is not contained and it spreads, it's going to affect the amount of dollars for business and for hunting licenses. People aren't going to go if they can't enjoy the hunt and the meat," said Scheibe, who spoke at Milwaukee County's hearing at Wauwatosa West High School that attracted more than 200 people.

The DNR distributed an 11-page summary of recent developments in chronic wasting disease at each of the hearings. Wildlife biologists also gave brief presentations on the outbreak.

Similar to mad cow disease

Chronic wasting disease attacks the brains of infected deer and elk, causing them to become emaciated and eventually die. Similar to mad cow disease, it belongs to the family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. There's no evidence that chronic wasting disease can afflict humans.

But the outbreak is already having an effect on hunters such as John Hrovat of West Allis.

"If it got to the point where it was widespread, I'd stop hunting deer," Hrovat said.

In Dodgeville, not far from ground zero of the outbreak, a dozen hunters crowded around a map that showed where deer afflicted with the disease had been killed in a 215-square-mile area near Mount Horeb.

On Sunday, the DNR exceeded its goal of shooting 500 deer in the area where three deer killed last November were discovered infected with the disease. Testing of 272 carcasses has turned up nine deer infected. Authorities expect the remaining results in the next few weeks.

"A lot of guys' wives and girlfriends are coming down on them for eating deer meet," said Craig Cleary of Lone Rock.

Cleary -- a bow and gun hunter -- is concerned that the disease could spread to livestock or people. For now, Cleary said he is continuing to eat venison from his freezer.

When DNR wildlife biologist Mike Foy was asked at the Dodgeville meeting whether he would eat venison from the area, he said: "I won't eat anything without a negative test. That's my opinion, not the department's."

Jim McCaulley, a Conservation Congress member and mayor of Dodgeville, said he's worried about the long-term implication of the disease.

If fewer hunters go into the woods this fall, the deer population will rise, prompting car-deer accidents to increase and causing more crop damage, McCaulley said.

"When we learn more about it, people are going to have to make some hard decisions about hunting this year," McCaulley said.

How bad will it get?

In West Bend, Hutchins wondered how many more deer will end up getting infected particularly since Wisconsin's herd is so dense compared with other states such as Colorado and Wyoming, where animals have been afflicted with the disease.

"If it spreads, it's going to have a huge effect" on the annual deer hunt, added Bill Becker of Kewaskum. "If they say you can't eat the meat, well, that's not good because if I shoot a deer, I want to be able to eat the meat."

The DNR has cautioned hunters not to eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, tonsils, spleen or lymph nodes of white-tailed deer and elk because the infectious part of chronic wasting disease concentrates in those tissues.

But Hutchins said that's not easy.

"If you ask hunters where the lymph nodes are, they probably don't know. I don't think I really know what they are," said Hutchins, who hunts in Vilas County.

Nearly 800 people showed up in Madison and some feared that not only hunting could be affected, but that the deer population could be wiped out by the disease. Some compared the severity of the outbreak to the AIDS epidemic.

"The implications of this scare me. I think about it like an epidemic," said Michael Hunt of Madison, a nature enthusiast and former hunter.

Irma Smith of Madison, who has hunted in the Tomah area for six years, is considering what to many hunters is unthinkable -- not hunting.

"I think this year we're going to skip it," Smith said of the fall deer-hunting season. "At least until we know they've contained it."

Larry Hagen, who said at least a quarter of his diet is venison, hasn't eaten any in the last month. The Mazomanie man said he plans to keep his venison in the freezer until he's certain it's safe.

"I have no idea what it will do to deer hunting in Wisconsin," said Hagen, who has hunted for more than 30 years. "People might not hunt unless it's strictly for trophy."

Ron Sell of Fall Creek, a deer hunter for about 20 years, said he's worried about disease, but not enough to quit hunting. He attended the hearing in Eau Claire, and he said he will change some of his hunting habits.

"I'll probably use a glove from now on when I'm gutting, probably take a little more precautions for myself," Sell said.

Gary Sly of Eau Claire plans to look more closely at the deer when he hunts this fall to see whether they look ill or act strangely.

A hunter for four decades, Sly said if he gets a deer this year, he doesn't know if he'll eat it.

"Nobody's told me I can't, but I don't know if I would," Sly said. "If it looks healthy, I probably would, but if it looks scrawny and sick, I'd just as soon shoot it and tag it and give it to the DNR."

More than 400 people showed up for the Conservation Congress hearing in Kaukauna, delaying the start of the meeting by 15 minutes. Some wondered whether allowing people to leave bait piles to attract deer has contributed to the outbreak.

Tim Krizek of Kaukauna admitted being nervous about the possible dangers of eating contaminated meat both for himself and his two young sons he brought along to the hearing.

"These are our next generations of hunters, and we don't know yet what the impact might be on them. Maybe in 10 years we'll hear that it does affect people," Krizek said.

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