May 16, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Craig Gilbert, et al.Stressing the need to act swiftly, lawmakers in Madison and Washington, D.C., moved on two fronts to free up millions of dollars to help fight a deadly brain disease discovered in Wisconsin's deer herd.
In Washington, a key House committee approved a $29.4 billion spending bill Wednesday that would allocate a $10 million emergency fund to Wisconsin and other states coping with chronic wasting disease.
And in Madison, the state Legislature, meeting in special session, early today approved legislation that provides $4 million in funding, and grants wildlife officials new powers to battle the disease.
"The scientists are telling us -- from other states who have dealt with this problem -- that we've got one shot, one shot, to try to eradicate this disease," state Sen. Mark Meyer (D-La Crosse) said. "If we fail in our actions today, what it's going to mean in 15 to 20 years (is) the white-tailed deer population in this state will be decimated." In addition to the $4 million in funding, legislation approved shortly after midnight permits wildlife officials or sharpshooters to hunt deer from roadsides and from helicopters; allocates $900,000 to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create the first lab in Wisconsin capable of testing for the disease; and gives the DNR authority to regulate recreational feeding of deer.
The bill now goes to Gov. Scott McCallum for his signature.
Chronic wasting disease is related to mad cow disease, and its discovery in 14 deer near Mount Horeb has cast uncertainty over deer hunting and the safety of eating venison. Many fear that questions about the safety of venison could keep thousands of hunters out of the woods this fall.
The World Health Organization has said there is no scientific evidence the disease can infect humans. However, the agency says no part of a deer or elk with evidence of the disease should be eaten by people or other animals.
The federal money was placed in the spending bill by U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, the top Democrat on the House appropriations panel, who -- like other Wisconsin lawmakers -- is responding to an issue of extraordinary urgency among his constituents.
"Number one, the disease has to be contained. Number two, it has to be understood. We know virtually nothing about it," said Obey in an interview Wednesday. "You have this huge gray zone there that threatens the entire tourist industry and entire hunting culture of the state."
Not since the gas price spikes of the last two summers has a parochial problem so animated the state's congressional delegation.
That sense of urgency was obvious in Washington this week.
La Crosse Democrat Ron Kind introduced a bill Wednesday that would establish a long-term national research program.
Green Bay Republican Mark Green issued Wednesday an open-ended written request to a long list of federal agencies for any "personnel, equipment or facilities" that would help the state handle a massive deer testing program this fall, so hunters will know if their venison is safe to eat.
In his letter to agencies, Green called chronic wasting disease "a threat to the culture of Wisconsin."
Meanwhile, they and other Wisconsin lawmakers, along with McCallum, have issued numerous public and personal appeals to the U.S. Agriculture Department for emergency funding to cope with the outbreak. The state has asked for $4 million now, and McCallum is seeking a total of $18.5 million in federal money over the next three years. Agriculture Department officials have said they're evaluating that request.
Obey said the department has been "hand-wringing," so "I decided to just go around them" with his $10 million appropriation.
On Monday, at the request of U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Agriculture undersecretary William Hawks plans to travel to the state to meet with officials on the issue.
Congressional hearing today
And today in Washington, McCallum will join officials from three other states and two federal departments in testifying before a House Resources subcommittee on the outbreak.
The committee has invited the congressional delegations of eight states affected by the disease to sit in on today's hearing: Wisconsin, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas. Representatives of both the Agriculture and Interior departments will testify about the federal response.
Kind's bill calls for creation of an Interior Department program that monitors the disease nationally, conducts research, develops a reliable live test and develops safe ways to dispose of diseased deer carcasses.
The $10 million in the House emergency spending bill approved Wednesday would go to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to "assist in state efforts to prevent and control transmissible spongiform encephalopathy" in farmed and free-ranging animals -- a category that includes chronic wasting disease.
Obey also placed in the $29.4 billion bill an appropriation of $1 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research into chronic wasting and related diseases. The Senate has not yet drafted its version of the supplemental spending bill, which is mostly devoted to military and anti-terrorism programs.
State lawmakers respond
To try to keep the disease from spreading, the state Department of Natural Resources wants to kill all deer -- about 15,000 -- within a three-county, 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb starting as early as next week by allowing landowners to hunt deer on their property.
Early today, Senate and Assembly negotiators agreed to a deal that resolved differences between the two special session bills in each house. The Assembly passed the compromise on an 89-5 vote and sent it to the Senate, where it passed on a voice vote.
The compromise accepted Assembly provisions that allowed farmers to hunt deer from their tractors in the kill zone and directed the DNR to provide notice to the public before an eradication zone hunt.
Before passing the legislation, state legislators spent hours Wednesday night debating how the hunt should take place.
Rep. Steven Freese (R-Dodgeville), who represents part of the area, unsuccessfully attempted to deny the DNR an opportunity to shoot from the air, citing safety concerns.
"I understand the need for the hunt, but they have to do it in a way that's not going to frighten people," Freese said. "You're not going to absolutely be able to guarantee the accuracy of shooting from up there."
Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee that helped craft the bill, defended shooting deer from the air.
"There's a lot of flashbacks to the 1960s and 1970s, and Vietnam with helicopters, but we're dealing with a disease and we have to get to these animals," Johnsrud said.
Rep. Frank Boyle (D-Superior), urged giving the DNR the tools it needs to conduct the kill.
"You could decimate the economy of this state in a few short years," he said. "Who cares how you get them? They are difficult to shoot. We should use every available means to control this problem."
Both the Senate and Assembly bills included amendments to rescind the powers of the DNR after two years, instead of the five years recommended by the Assembly and Senate committees.
In the Assembly, Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo) argued that the DNR should be made to report on the results of its efforts and receive approval from the full Legislature before the powers are extended.
But Johnsrud said the DNR should be given more time before facing legislative review.
------------ Written by Journal Sentinel reporters Craig Gilbert in Washington, Lee Bergquist in Milwaukee, and Dennis Chaptman and Richard P. Jones in Madison.