To deal with CWD, state needs different ways of thinking

October 8, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by John Barnes
Little sense can be made of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' actions regarding the management of chronic wasting disease.

I have attended legislative hearings, DNR board hearings, DNR focus groups and informational meetings where I have witnessed the objecting testimony of academics, wildlife ecologists, researchers, property owners, naturalists, hunters and animal protectionists not only being ignored, but labeled as part of the problem. These individuals were also treated rudely and with disdain.

We hear about eradication of deer and the disease in the so-called target zone, which is an absolute physical impossibility. As testing is expanded into other areas of the state, including game farms, we will find that the disease is already widespread. In the West, where the disease has existed for 30 years, the ground in CWD study areas is considered contaminated in perpetuity years after removal of infected animals. We hear that the disease will be eliminated if the landowners in said target area cooperate with the DNR exterminators; this also has become a failure as more people go on record every day as noncooperators.

Landowners in the zone have been threatened with the imposition of martial law by the state Legislature and the DNR. By this I mean that in their pursuit of killing, these governmental bodies are ready to deny property rights, allow inordinate weaponry, permit aerial shooting and pursue the driving of deer from noncompliant properties.

This is not only unconstitutional, but an invitation to offended property owners to institute reprisals of their own, a very ugly thought.

What to do?

Recognize that massive shooting campaigns will actually lead to the spread of CWD by dispersing pursued infected animals into adjacent regions and by creating vacant niches in the contaminated zone for deer to migrate into after the shooting stops. Realize that the great majority of animals killed are normal, healthy ones.

Large-scale killing denies the emergence of individuals resistant to the genetic mutation that leads to CWD, which could lead to developing a healthy herd in the future.

Eliminate deer and elk farms. There has been a nonregulated deer and elk farm industry in this state for decades under the casual eye of the DNR (they are now managed by the agriculture department). Virtually no control existed in the intrastate or interstate movement of animals until April of this year. Nearly all outbreaks of CWD in the United States and Canada have been traced back to game farms.

Game farms represent incubators of disease, endangering wild deer and elk populations and the livestock industry, and the unbridled commercialization of wildlife. The major disease concerns on these properties are brucellosis, tuberculosis and CWD. Wisconsin may have to decide whether we want a captive or wild population of deer; it is unlikely that both can exist in a healthy state.

Change the DNR deer management plan. For many decades, deer have been produced for the killing. This means that with careful planning, the DNR has regulated kill quotas by sex and season length, and manipulated forestry practices to ensure winter survival through food production. This program has maintained and even increased the deer population in the state. This serves well the agency's constituency, the deer-hunting industry, but is a plague to other ecological balances. More deer means more license sales, resulting in more money and a bigger bureaucracy. We clearly need to reduce the deer population by two-thirds statewide.

Test deer throughout the state during the regular hunting season in a statistically valid manner to define the extent of the disease. Allocate money for research to determine the mechanism of transmission, a food safety test, a rapid diagnostic test and a study of the extended parameters of CWD (such as crossing species barriers).

* In the end we must ask ourselves, is this disease scenario a direct result of man's self-serving intrusion into captive and wild deer populations? Is nature moving in to rebalance the overabundance we have created?

Perhaps we should sit back for once, observe and learn. We should rethink wild nature as having a life of its own without human intervention.

EDITOR-NOTE: John F. Barnes is a retired veterinarian who lives in the town of Springdale.

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