October 20, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist and Rick Romell Lbergquist@Journalsentinel.Com
Last fall, hundreds of thousands of hunters hit the woods on the
Saturday before Thanksgiving, renewing one of Wisconsin's most
cherished traditions. Deer camps burst to life as longtime friends
reunited to swap new jokes, enhance old memories and redistribute
income around the card table.
Such things are not supposed to change.
But three months after the last rifle fired, chronic wasting disease turned up in our midst, leaping hundreds of miles from the sparse Western plains. A cousin of mad cow disease was loose in America's Dairyland. What does it mean?
Beginning today and continuing for the next four Sundays, we are presenting a comprehensive report on the disease and the challenges it presents. We hope to provide you with the knowledge to make informed decisions on how to respond to those challenges.
It was nearly noon on Nov. 18, a warm Sunday, the second day of Wisconsin's 2001 deer season, and Tom Schulenberg was hungry.
Eager to hunt that morning, he had skipped breakfast, stuffed some Snickers bars in his fanny pack and hit the woods near his family's farm northwest of Mount Horeb at 5:30 a.m.
He had spent three hours in a tree stand, returned to help with morning chores, then joined his father and other hunting partners on drives to flush deer along the farm's steep, wooded ridges.
Now, walking home for lunch, with the shotgun his father had given him for his 12th birthday slung over his shoulder, he looked toward a creek bed where he often saw deer.
Sure enough, one was resting on grass in a marshy spot about 100 yards away, but Schulenberg, 18, didn't get a good look until he crossed the road and stood at the edge of a hayfield.
That's when he saw the rack -- 12 points, symmetrical, with a spread of maybe a foot and a half. He'd never bagged a trophy anywhere near that big.
At the same time, Schulenberg thought something might be wrong. The deer was so skinny he could see its ribs. Maybe a bowhunter had wounded it, or it had been hit by a car.
He moved closer. The deer just lowered its head and watched. Schulenberg dug five shells from his pack and closed to about 30 yards.
His first shot was off, hitting a tree and shaking it. The deer didn't move. The second shot struck the animal in the chest. It tried to flee but couldn't. As the deer stumbled, Schulenberg missed again, then dropped the buck with a shot to the neck.
He got out his walkie-talkie and excitedly radioed his dad, who came down in an all-terrain vehicle.
Tom's father admired the buck's antlers. But he recognized instantly that the deer wasn't right. Don't bother field dressing it, he said; no one will be eating this meat.
Tom and another hunter lifted it onto the ATV.
The 2 1/2-year-old buck, which should have weighed maybe 180 pounds, was no heavier than a large dog.
No one, least of all the Schulenbergs, thought Tom's buck would matter to anyone but the young hunter.
But three months later, Wisconsin would be shaken by the discovery that his deer and two others shot nearby harbored a mysterious and always fatal illness-- chronic wasting disease.
Until then, chronic wasting disease had existed on the high, dry plains of Western states such as Colorado and Wyoming. Now it was in the woodlands and farm country east of the Mississippi River, where deer densities are higher, speed of transmission is faster and interaction between deer and people is greater.
Nothing about deer or deer hunting has been the same since.
The outbreak raised the possibility that Wisconsin's herd -- 1.6 million strong -- could be infected with a disease that turned deer into slobbering, emaciated animals. It called into question the safety of venison because of chronic wasting disease's relation to mad cow disease and mad cow's human cousin -- variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- which causes brains to disintegrate as if infected with fast-acting Alzheimer's. And it left the fall deer hunt, one of the state's most hallowed traditions, riddled with uncertainty.
Tens of thousands of deer hunters might stay out of the woods, gutting a sporting ritual that generates an estimated half-billion dollars a year. That's a tiny segment of Wisconsin's economy but a serious blow to the outfitters, lodges, supper clubs and meat processors depending on hunting clientele.
Fewer hunters -- nearly 700,000 typically take to the woods each year -- also would mean fewer deer culled from an already overpopulated herd. And that would raise more problems: Car-deer accidents would multiply; other diseases would spread more easily through the herd; wildlife would suffer as deer exact a brutal toll on the landscape.
The region's cultural fabric would be altered.
"Hunting is my life," said Walworth County bowhunter Jeff Nelson. "My boss gets my brain and my brawn. My wife and my family get my love and affection. But my soul belongs in the woods."
Still more worries surfaced when chronic wasting disease was discovered in September on a Portage County hunting preserve, almost 100 miles north of Mount Horeb, and just last week at a game farm in Walworth County.
In addition to the two deer on game farms, chronic wasting disease has now been found in 40 free-ranging deer. Many more are presumed infected. Officials believe the disease has been in Wisconsin, undetected, for about five years.
All of which helps explain the state's scorched-earth strategy to attack the disease in what has become known as the eradication zone.
The plan calls for virtually wiping out the deer herd -- as many as 25,000 animals -- across an area larger than Milwaukee County. It's a picturesque slice of narrow valleys and steep hills that has become a magnet for Madison's out-migration. Pricey homes on large parcels have multiplied while the number of working farms has dwindled.
The tranquil setting will be the scene of a huge and bloody undertaking, with workers decapitating thousands of deer at roadside stations and stuffing their carcasses into cold storage until they can be sent to landfills or incinerated.
The job won't be completed this year. Landowner resistance in the 411-square-mile zone could slow the killing. And there's the sheer immensity of the task -- in addition to wiping out almost every deer in the eradication zone, the state Department of Natural Resources wants to kill three-quarters of the deer across 10 surrounding counties.
Not since the 1920s has a wildlife agency tried to root out a disease by killing so many animals, certainly none as large and majestic as the white-tailed deer.
And while it does not appear to be driving policy, one other factor bears consideration: What if chronic wasting disease can jump to cattle?
Researchers have not found any evidence that cattle can become infected under natural conditions, but when chronic wasting disease appears side by side with the nation's second-largest dairy herd, people worry. Just ask Keith O'Connell, who with his brothermilks 180 Holsteins on a farm in the dead center of the disease zone. O'Connell, who loves deer hunting, strongly supports eradication.
"It's my livelihood if it gets into my herd," said O'Connell, who has seen as many as 18 deer at a time pawing holes in the huge plastic bags of feed he keeps in his fields.
The bottom line is that, of all the places chronic wasting disease might have turned up, none could have been hit harder than Wisconsin. As state native Richard Nelson, a cultural anthropologist and deer expert now living in Alaska, puts it:
"There's a fire in the Sistine Chapel."
'A big problem' Game wardens immediately knocking on hunters' doors
The alarm sounded on Feb. 28, three months after the 2001 gun season had ended.
On that day, Julie Langenberg, chief veterinarian for the DNR, sat in her Madison office, listening in on a conference call.
The subject was one of the happiest chapters in Wisconsin wildlife history -- the successful establishment of a migratory flock of whooping cranes, a bird nursed back from the very lip of extinction.
A staff member slipped in and whispered in Langenberg's ear: Secretary Darrell Bazzell wanted to see her. No one told her what was up, but Langenberg made an educated guess. Probably TB, she thought.
Tuberculosis already infected the deer herd in Michigan and was the DNR's main worry in a 3-year-old health testing program. Chronic wasting disease, for which the agency also had been testing, was a secondary concern.
That was about to change profoundly.
Bazzell told Langenberg what he had heard at a cabinet meeting that morning: Chronic wasting disease somehow had jumped hundreds of miles and the Mississippi River, and turned up in Wisconsin.
By the end of that afternoon, the DNR had pulled records and come up with the names of the three men who had shot diseased deer. By that evening, game wardens were knocking on the hunters' doors and visiting their neighbors.
Within a day, Langenberg and Bill Mytton, then a DNR big-game specialist, were arranging to fly to Sidney, Neb., for a multistate meeting on chronic wasting disease. When they found out commercial flights would involve extended delays, they got authority to use a state plane.
After the meeting, they reported to Tom Hauge, the DNR's director of wildlife management and the agency's point man on chronic wasting disease.
"Those folks confirmed what we already knew," Hauge said. "We had a big problem on our hands. We were told that maybe we got a shot at eradicating this . . . of putting the genie back in the bottle."
While some biologists scrambled to learn more about the disease, others tried to pinpoint how it ever got here.
Did someone unknowingly bring an infected carcass back from a Western hunting trip and dump it in the woods? Did someone illegally release a deer into the wild? Could tainted feed have been the problem? Were game farms the culprit?
Hunters often dump bones on their properties, and investigators interviewed more than a dozen people who had hunted in the West, including some who had brought back carcasses. Eventually, old bones were dismissed as the likely source.
Tainted feed came up because it was implicated in mad cow disease in Great Britain. There, cattle were fed the ground-up carcasses of animals infected with abnormal proteins -- known as prions -- that are thought to cause the illness. In 1997, the United States banned most mammalian animal parts from being ground into feed for ruminants such as cows, sheep and deer. But the DNR wondered whether hunters might still be using old feed or improperly concocting their own.
Early in the chronic wasting disease investigation, wardens seized feed supplements at farms and local stores and turned the information over to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The department then checked with manufacturers to see whether the feed contained ground-up deer infected with the disease. None did.
Investigators also asked whether residents knew if someone had illegally released a deer, presumably to juice up the local herd's gene pool.
Much attention, meanwhile, has focused on another possible source -- game farms. That aspect of the investigation took on added weight with the discovery last month of an infected buck on a preserve in Portage County. A second discovery was made last week on a game farm in Walworth County. Game farms have been implicated in spreading the disease in other states, notably in Colorado.
The reason for the concern is that chronic wasting disease can jump into the wild if a deer escapes from an infected farm. It's believed the disease even could spread if an infected deer nuzzles another deer through a fence.
Last week, DNR lead investigator Thomas C. Solin said 116 animals have escaped from game farms in 23 documented incidents. Some of the animals were shot. Others have not been accounted for. And because farmers aren't required to report escapes, investigators believe many others have occurred.
Numerous people have reported seeing a mule deer in the area the year before chronic wasting disease was discovered. Mule deer are not native to Wisconsin but are common in Colorado and Wyoming. At least one man said the deer had a tag in its ear, an indication the animal had been on a farm.
In addition, Mytton said a whitetail with an ear tag was found after being killed by a vehicle about 1 1/2 years ago on state Highway 23. The road runs just west of the eradication zone.
Fueling much of the suspicion is the boom that the captive game industry has undergone in recent years. State records show that 3,000 deer and elk have been shipped into Wisconsin in the past six years alone. In addition, several Wisconsin game farms have owned elk that could be traced to diseased herds in Colorado. None is near the chronic wasting disease zone, but farm-to-farm traffic is brisk -- more than 900 deer and elk have moved among Wisconsin farms since 1997. Some transactions go unreported because of poor record keeping.
"We are finding out real quickly that we cannot rely solely on a game farm's records," Solin said.
Passion questioned Fingers point at advocate of new hunting style
When bad things happen, people point fingers. As the investigation for the source of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin unfolded, some pointed at Pat Sutter.
"I've had a lot of sleepless nights," Sutter said at his Town of Vermont home.
The house sits in a little valley north of Blue Mounds in Dane County. In the yard sweeping up to the woods and ridges that make up most of Sutter's 132 acres are targets for archery practice.
Inside, on the knotty-pine walls of the family room, hang the heads of a bull elk and seven well-antlered whitetails. Another deer head sits on the floor. Perhaps a dozen sets of shed antlers rest on the hearth.
Sutter is so enthusiastic about deer and deer hunting that he and his wife, Greer, have been leading advocates for what is called quality-deer management.
The practice is seen as a way to build better deer herds. Hunters give young bucks a pass, letting them grow into bigger animals with bigger antlers. At the same time, they try to shoot enough does to keep the population in balance with the habitat.
"Greer and Pat definitely were some earlier disciples of it in the Midwest," said Gordon Whittington, editor of North American Whitetail magazine.
They started in 1987, laying down rules for friends and relatives who hunted on their land and an adjoining farm owned by Pat's brother: You had to shoot a doe first; you couldn't shoot year-old bucks.
It worked. Within three years, the Sutters were seeing older, bigger bucks. They began preaching the gospel to neighbors, and before long, large chunks of property in the area were being managed along quality-deer management guidelines.
"For two years I had a second phone, and I talked to people all over the state," Pat Sutter said. "It was just unbelievable. I gave hundreds and hundreds of talks."
And the quality-deer advocate's property, it happens, sits right in the middle of the 3-square-mile area where the first chronic wasting disease deer were shot. It wasn't long before game wardens stopped by to talk.
According to Sutter, they asked whether he'd heard of anyone bringing a "breeder buck" into the area in a bid to enhance the local herd. He said he hadn't.
But Sutter said a relative called a couple of weeks later and said investigators had been asking about him. A DNR warden supervisor denies that.
In any event, Sutter began hearing rumors linking him to a buck that supposedly brought in chronic wasting disease. At one point, he said, he was getting a dozen calls a day from friends saying they'd heard others talking about him.
Sutter says the notion doesn't make sense. The area already has "some of the best genetics in the country," he said. Why bring in a superbuck to just let it run free?
Science, guesswork A strategy evolves to curb devastation
Shortly after the discovery of the disease in Wisconsin, a scientific team was assembled from different arms of state government, the University of Wisconsin and federal agencies to help sort out the best attack strategy.
Central to that team was John Cary, a UW-Madison expert in applying computer technology to wildlife research.
Cary -- who has hunted deer in the affected area for three decades -- is an expert at writing algorithms that predict population changes in wildlife. He's researched species as varied as deer, ruffed grouse and Florida manatees.
Seeking a picture of chronic wasting disease's potential devastation, Cary at times harnessed every computer he could find in his department and ran them over weekends.
Left unchecked, he concluded, the disease within 25 years could wipe out the deer in a 5,000-square-mile area.
Cary calculated that the disease would spread more than twice as rapidly here as it had among elk and mule deer studied in the West. The reason: Wisconsin's woods and farm fields support far more deer per square mile than the arid plains of eastern Colorado and Wyoming.
The analysis helped shape the DNR's eradication strategy.
Cary acknowledges that the computer model is a mix of science and educated guesswork. For example, the science team had to guess how far deer move. While many people think they know -- and their answers differ -- there has been little recent research. It was a point the scientific team argued about constantly.
"Everything we put in is disputable and contentious, I guess, but these things have to be measured," Cary said.
Breaking new ground Killing, testing will be on huge scale
Taking on chronic wasting disease will require more than killing tens of thousands of deer.
Every animal shot in the eradication zone, thousands more in the surrounding counties, and a sampling of 500 from most counties in Wisconsin -- 50,000 animals in all -- will be tested for chronic wasting disease. The sheer magnitude of the task means hunters might wait six months for their results.
The DNR says 500 tests per county are enough to show whether chronic wasting disease is present.
But in an indication of the uncertainty posed by the disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week said it would clear the way for up to 200,000 additional tests at labs around the country.
"No one has tried to manage a disease like this anywhere in the world before," said Mike Miller, a veterinarian with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and an expert on chronic wasting disease.
With four special shooting periods this spring and summer in which landowners and DNR marksmen killed nearly 1,500 deer, Wisconsin got an early start on its efforts to test for and contain the disease.
The big muscle, though, will come from an army of people like John Huff, who, working last month during one of the special hunts, provided a glimpse of what's to come.
A DNR wildlife biologist from Peshtigo, Huff, 43, was posted as a deer handler -- unofficially, a "head lopper" -- at a collection site north of Barneveld.
His operating area: a pair of picnic tables covered with blood-slick plastic.
His tools: long-bladed knives, bone saws, side cutters and a specialty device called a jaw spreader.
His job: Cut a tooth from each deer so its age could be determined. Slice off the head, double-bag it and put it in a freezer to await transport to the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory for testing.
Wrap the rest of the carcass in a plastic bag secured by duct tape and drag it into a refrigerated semitrailer, ultimately bound for a pet crematorium in Poynette. Attach to everything an identification tag with a unique number and scannable bar code.
For his work, Huff wore cut-resistant Kevlar gloves, vinyl overalls and a T-shirt. Blood was spattered on his forearms.
He didn't worry about the prions that likely were in some of the deer he handled. He said he believed the species barrier -- the ability of one species to repel an infectious agent from another species -- was strong and that, even if it wasn't, his exposure was not dangerous.
"I've got a lot more chance standing here of being hurt by a guy accidentally putting his truck into reverse than I do from anything else," he said.
While he and partner Dan Weidert butchered, others at the station took information about the hunters and where they shot their deer. The pace was leisurely, in contrast to the frenetic activity anticipated during the expanded hunt in late October and the November gun season.
Then, some 1,000 DNR employees who typically work other jobs will staff collection stations across the state. Hundreds of other people from various government agencies, conservation clubs and universities also have volunteered. But there's a hitch: At some locations, most of the volunteers want to help take information, not handle deer.
"We've got a lot of people working with pencils, but not a lot with knives," said volunteer recruitment coordinator Chuck McCullough.
The DNR sent deer killed early in spring to Dane County's landfill but then was stymied by unexpected opposition as fears over the danger of prions mounted. Now, because of the uproar over landfills there and elsewhere, thousands of carcasses from the eradication zone will be shipped on a bizarre journey.
A fur company will haul the animals to La Crosse, where they will be skinned, compacted with shrink-wrap, frozen and stored in refrigerated semitrailers. There they'll sit for months, awaiting test results. Carcasses without chronic wasting disease then will go to landfills. Infected carcasses will be incinerated at Poynette.
The row over landfills surprised and frustrated the DNR.
The agency, which regulates landfills, scrambled to present technical data supporting its case that disposal of prion-infected deer in landfills would not pose significant risk. But DNR staffers believe many local officials acted out of panic.
'We are at war' Hard work gets done but takes its toll
Carl Batha is a large man with a soft voice and a belt-shadowing paunch he sometimes jokes about. In Wisconsin's war on chronic wasting disease, Batha has been the DNR's field general.
Others set policy and handle the science. He's the guy in charge of seeing that the work -- unappetizing, controversial and downright dirty as some of it might be -- gets done.
Thirty years ago, fresh out of graduate school, he came here from Missouri to do the sort of thing wildlife biologists love. An early assignment: help reintroduce the wild turkey to Wisconsin. The program was a huge success.
Now he's neck deep in the sort of task a wildlife worker hates -- organizing the hellish logistics of killing thousands of animals -- and success is anything but assured.
"I've got my back to the wall," he said wearily one day last month.
Since March, the wildlife management supervisor has sweat the details of a massive deer-eradication effort: dealing with irate landowners, organizing roadside stations where crews chop off animals' heads for testing, setting up marksmanship training for DNR shooters, thinking about hunting deer with helicopters, thinking about taking deer with snares.
"We are at war," Batha told his troops during a planning, venting and morale-building meeting last month. "We are at war."
He's frustrated by what he sees as media- and emotion-driven "mass hysteria" over chronic wasting disease. He's also frustrated by foes of the eradication policy. Some, he believes, are simply being selfish.
"Either lead, follow or get out of the way, as I am not going to give up on rescuing the deer resource in your area," he wrote last spring to a man whose friends were viewed as opposing the DNR's efforts.
"I have had my fill of negative rhetoric from the aristocrat 'landed gentry' while the dirt-under-the-fingernail farmers and the 'commoner' hunters are up to the challenge. . . . Will it be a hassle? Yes sir, it will be."
When Batha first learned of the chronic wasting disease outbreak, he spent the weekend reading everything he could find about the disease. There was plenty to learn. He didn't then know what a prion was.
What he did know, according to colleagues, was how to lead.
"One thing about Carl," said Mytton, a key player in the chronic wasting disease fight until he left the agency in July, "is he can get projects done."
This "project," though, has been like no other.
By Batha's own account, it has pushed him into what he figures is probably depression. He goes to bed exhausted and wakes up at 2 a.m., thoughts of chronic wasting disease racing through his mind. Days off, he said, often find him "just staring into nothingness." He has gained weight.
Given his responsibilities and the overwhelming nature of the job, it probably isn't surprising that Batha's reactions should be so acute.
"Carl and all of us have been traumatized, I think," Mytton said. "We spent all our careers trying to build a solid wildlife program, and you're watching one of the most valuable resources in the state crumble."
A different view Opponents worry DNR may be moving too fast
The DNR appears to have support across the state for its eradication strategy. But in the target area, the agency has run up against opponents such as Mark Sherven.
Sherven, 49, doesn't come across as a rabble-rouser. He speaks slowly and seems to weigh his words. He says he has generally supported the DNR in the past.
He ran a dairy operation on his land north of Mount Horeb until five years ago, when he broke his wrist trying to get a cow off the ground and, having trouble finding help while he mended, decided to sell his herd.
Now he manages a tree farm. He's also co-founder of one of the opposition groups that have vexed the DNR.
The seeds of opposition sprouted on a rainy May night in Sherven's driveway. That evening, Sherven had attended a tense, crowded gathering at Mount Horeb High School, where DNR officials presented their kill-all-the-deer plan.
He drove home about 11 p.m. and, although he had to get up for work at 5:30, sat in his car for a half-hour or so, thinking.
As rain began to fall, Sherven realized he wouldn't -- he simply couldn't -- support wiping out that many deer on what heviewed as too little information.
A few evenings later, he and a half-dozen like-minded people gathered at a rural Dane County tavern where, over sodas and beer, they organized themselves as Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter.
In less than a week, they launched a Web site and began researching legal strategies to stop the deer kill. Not long afterward, a second group formed and by last week said it had gotten owners of about 30% of the land in the zone to sign petitions opposing the eradication plan. That much resistance -- DNR staffers question the number -- could gum up a plan that depends on landowners to kill most of the deer.
Sherven thinks the deer herd should be reduced -- but not eliminated -- and he will hunt this fall on his land. But he also thinks the DNR should have tested statewide before targeting a single area and that the agency hasn't given local residents enough of a voice.
"They just set the rules and say, 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem,' " he said, "and a lot of people don't take well to that."
Collision course Landowner, DNR friction no surprise
The DNR, in fact, has stepped up its efforts to reach out to people in the eradication zone, naming individual staffers as liaisons to each community in the area.
But the agency almost inherently inspires opposition. If it isn't a developer complaining about wetlands regulations, it's a hunter worked up about bag limits and complaining that DNR really stands for "Damn Near Russia."
Daniel Trainer, a retired dean of the School of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point, said much of the emotion stems from conflicting agendas: People don't like being told what they can do on their land, and the DNR is responsible for the well-being of Wisconsin's public resources.
Deer ratchet things up a notch.
"Everybody's a deer expert," Trainer said. "Go into a bar and ask 12 people, and you get 12 different answers."
The current controversy has a historical parallel -- nearly 80 years ago in California's Stanislaus National Forest. Then, in the country's only comparable mass kill, U.S. government workers wiped out 22,000 deer with guns and strychnine to control an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
The effort succeeded.
But before it did, the slaughter so angered some nearby residents that workers temporarily were pulled out of the hills because of threatened mob action.
Hauge knows how high feelings run here. As the DNR's point man on chronic wasting disease, he has had to cajole legislators for money and take the heat from opponents. Even during the best of times, it's a job requiring the skills of both a biologist and a diplomat.
"Deer evoke strong emotions," he said. "It's a big part of our culture in Wisconsin. And when most of those deer are on private land, we're not talking wilderness. This is someone's home."
Split decision Strategy could hurt, could be only chance
Landowners are not alone in being divided over Wisconsin's strategy. Most wildlife experts think the state plan is correct, but some respected voices disagree.
Disease outbreaks are a way nature responds to overpopulation and other factors, said Danny B. Pence, past editor of the Journal of Wildlife Disease.
"Wildlife diseases come and wildlife diseases go," said Pence, now a professor of parasitology at Texas Tech University. "I am not sure I believe in wiping out populations to control diseases. We have been losing mule deer in the West for 25 years. This is just another thing they get."
Charles Southwick, a mule deer expert at the University of Colorado, said chronic wasting disease might have been in the wild for hundreds of years.
Southwick reread accounts of deer diseases dating to the Civil War and found many descriptions such as "lacking alertness," "emaciated," "staggering" and "slobbering."
"Sometimes these deer were taken into captivity and fed alfalfa and they ate heartily, but they still died," Southwick said.
He said Wisconsin's strategy actually could make things worse, spreading the disease by scaring away deer that aren't shot. And even though research on genetic resistance to chronic wasting disease is in its infancy, killing thousands of healthy deer will make it harder for the deer population to recover on its own, he said.
Even Trainer, a supporter of the DNR's plan, wonders whether the agency pulled the trigger too quickly and should have tested for chronic wasting disease in the rest of the state first.
DNR leaders acknowledge that the state hasn't been adequately tested and that chronic wasting disease could be elsewhere in Wisconsin. But they know where chronic wasting disease is now, and they say any delay might risk losing a one-time chance to stop its spread.
Miller, the veterinarian at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, thinks Wisconsin is on the right track.
A leading authority on chronic wasting disease, Miller, in hindsight, believes Colorado should have acted sooner to control the disease. Its measured response over two decades allowed chronic wasting to become firmly entrenched.
When it was discovered this year that the disease had jumped the 14,000-foot peaks of the Continental Divide and onto the Rockies' western slope -- a region that attracts more deer and elk hunters than the state's plains -- Colorado launched an attack very similar to Wisconsin's effort.
Milton Friend, a Madison biologist and disease expert and former director of the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, also agrees with the DNR strategy.
"Without question, we are in an era of emerging infectious diseases," he said. "One reason is because we are looking for it. But the bottom line is our shrinking world -- the speed of transportation that allows these pathogens to move quickly."
He likens chronic wasting disease hot spots to a wind-whipped fire.
"Contain it, and then try to wipe it out," Friend said. "It's pay now or pay later, and the costs will be greater later."