Wisconsin's grisly task: kill off deer;

November 30th, 2002 by Todd Hartman

Something's missing at Doyle's Hunting Shack this year. The adjoining cornfield, usually packed with cars, is empty. A few folks trickle in, but they arrive without that tingle of anticipation this night usually brings.

Dan Doyle is here, of course. He's the one who converted his garage-size turkey shed into a cozy neighborhood social den, one usually filled with local hunters on the eve of Wisconsin's most hallowed day - the opening of deer season last Saturday.

Chronic wasting disease has killed the mood, Doyle explains, cutting his usual crowd at least in half, sending hunters to other parts of the state and driving edgy wives to ask husbands to keep venison out of the house. "They're scared of what they're going to shoot," Doyle said, as he filleted fresh Canada walleye for the die-hards who did come through the door. In a state where hunting is embraced as warmly as the Green Bay Packers, Doyle said, the downturn in enthusiasm is palpable.

None of this is good news to Wisconsin wildlife managers, still reeling from the stunning discovery in February that CWD had leaped from the Rocky Mountain West to the oak and maple forests of the Badger State.

In the months since, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources hatched a plan more ambitious than that of any state confronting the dreaded illness of deer and elk: Wipe out CWD.

To do this, wildlife managers staked out a 411-square-mile "eradication zone" in south-central Wisconsin where CWD first turned up. This is where the state aims to eliminate the white-tailed deer herd - and the disease - by shooting 25,000 of the animals.

At the same time, state officials and conservation groups have tried to mobilize Wisconsin's hunters, exhorting them to join the crusade in a campaign that resembles a political race. On yard signs, billboards and bumper stickers, residents are commanded: "Fight CWD - Hunt Deer."

But the blaze-orange army isn't rushing into battle.

From the sparse crowd at Doyle's Hunting Shack and across the neat farms, dark soils and charming small towns of Mazomanie, Black Earth and Mount Horeb, CWD is robbing southern Wisconsin of the thrill of the hunt.

"I always looked forward to this day as one of the most exciting days of the year; you never know what's coming over the hill," Doyle said in his woodstove-warmed shack. "But this year, it's just not there."

Thrill of the kill is gone

Any other year, opening day of Wisconsin's gun season would kick off a limited hunt, covering nine days.

But this year, with state officials eager to attack CWD, hunters have been allowed to shoot deer in the eradication zone and nearby areas since the summer. That alone took some of the cherished novelty out of opening day.

CWD worries also led to lagging hunting license sales. At one point, it appeared the hunting drop-off might be as high as 30 percent.

By the time opening day rolled around, however, sales were down only about 10 percent from last year, a significant number but actually a relief to game wardens and hunting advocates."We started out (with sales) down 37 percent," said Brett Hulsey, a hunter, Sierra Club activist and a county supervisor inside the kill zone. "So I think it's a victory to be only down 10 percent."

Statewide, deer kills were down for the first weekend of gun season, typically the biggest two days of the year. Through last Sunday, hunters in Wisconsin killed 21 percent fewer deer than last year - 120,658 compared with 151,929 according to early counts. That's the state's lowest opening weekend deer kill since 1994.

Then there was the uneasiness many feel about consuming deer that might be contaminated with the disease, even though there's no known case of CWD infecting a person.

It's CWD's relationship to mad cow disease that scares some people. About half the hunters taking deer in the state's eradication zone were leaving their kill at state registration stations. They wanted to help DNR with the kill, but weren't interested in taking their meat home.

"I'm concerned with it," said Davey White of Kenosha, as he disposed of three does at a registration site near Black Earth. "I'm waiting to see what they really come up with" as far as more research on the human health risk.

Venison is as much a part of Wisconsin culture as cheese and polka music. Like salmon to the Pacific Northwest or beef to Nebraska, venison - converted to sausage, chili or jerky - is often the centerpiece at social gatherings.

"We think of venison as a wholesome product," said Tom Hauge, wildlife director for the state's Department of Natural Resources and a top dog in the CWD fight. "To have it be considered unsafe would be demoralizing."

Gruesome work

The eradication zone is not for the meek. Workers wearing blood-spattered coveralls at the Black Earth deer registration station watch as pickups, SUVs and minivans pull into covered bays, their vehicles loaded with dead deer, the heads drooped over bumpers. Some hunters bring in one; others bring in as many as four.

Workers waste no time taking down the animals' gender, gauging its age from the teeth, recording where the animal was shot, then using a bone saw to slice off the animal's head. If a hunter wants the antlers, workers use a power saw. Deer heads are put in black plastic trash bags, then taken to a nearby lab so tissue can be removed for CWD tests.

Some hunters drive away with the rest of their kill. But many leave it behind. Workers driving a front-end loader haul the headless creatures to a refrigeration truck so a fur company can later salvage the hides.

It is nasty work in cold weather. Workers warm their hands on a fire pit between arrivals.

"You get pretty used to it," said DNR wildlife technician Craig Kopacek. "It's like a production line."

Ironically, the gruesome scene within the kill zone sits near a region of the state locals call the "Cradle of Conservation," former stomping grounds for famous naturalists Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Leopold, author of the Sand County Almanac, is considered the father of wildlife ecology. Muir founded the Sierra Club.

Leopold, writing in his monograph of wildlife management, may have predicted the scourge of CWD in 1933, when he said that if the deer population grew too large, it would be disease that does the dirty work. It's unlikely Leopold ever pictured beheaded deer tossed into piles awaiting a landfill or a crematory.

"This isn't like hunting - it's like killing or murdering," said Chris Quandt of Madison, as he dumped two does at a state-run deer station near Black Earth. "I've always been taught that you don't kill anything unless you're going to eat it. This is really weird."

Still, Quandt supports the state's eradication plan. "I'm a landowner here. I want to find out how widespread the disease is," he said.

Billion-dollar stakes

What makes CWD more troubling in Wisconsin than Colorado is the sheer number and density of deer and the social nature of the white-tails.

Both those factors suggest the disease could spread easier through Wisconsin's herd - estimated at 1.6 million deer - and beyond.

DNR officials say it's a full-blown crisis. As in Colorado, Wisconsin officials point to some computer models that suggest the disease, if left unchecked, could eventually spread deep through the state's herd and cripple a $1.3 billion-a-year hunting industry.

"We're one of the top five states for license sales, one of the top three for deer harvest," explains Hauge of DNR. "When the disease threatens the deer herd, it starts to threaten our lifestyle."

In a poll conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November, 59 percent of hunters said they strongly or somewhat agree with the DNR plan. In turn, 31 percent strongly or somewhat disagree with the big kill.

Count Terry Frey among the backers. A hunter and member of a county CWD task force within the eradication zone, he argues the deer population is so high, that killing as many as possible in the zone can't do any damage.

"We're the first state to go absolutely gung-ho to eradicate (CWD)," said Frey, wearing his orange hunting cap on the eve of opening day. "The state is gambling on some things, and everyone can question a gamble."

'The debacle of the century'

Critics call the strategy folly. Already 41 wild deer have tested positive for CWD inside the targeted zone - with thousands of deer still to be tested - suggesting the disease has a major foothold. Eliminating it, opponents say, is all but impossible and a needless waste of healthy animals to get a few sick ones.

"There is no doubt that this will be looked back upon as the wildlife debacle of the century," said Mark Peck, a corn and soybean farmer in the eradication zone. "There's tens of thousands of deer going into Dumpsters into Wisconsin. This is just destroying the ethical fibers of hunting."

Everyone - critics and supporters alike - wonder what the state will do if testing finds the disease has moved outside the eradication zone. Will Wisconsin enlarge the killing zone? Will it create a second zone? Or will it accept the fact that the disease is here to stay and try to manage it instead of wipe it out?

"The hope and prayer is we don't find it anywhere else," DNR spokesman Bob Manwell said. "Based on the limited surveillance done in past years, we don't have any evidence to cause us to assume there are (cases elsewhere). We're going to cross that bridge when we come to it."

But opponents say if CWD pops up elsewhere in Wisconsin - and a case has already been discovered in northern Illinois, south of the eradication zone - it makes driving CWD out of Wisconsin unlikely and renders the big kill pointless.

"We want to test the state, before we eradicate," said Spud Rose, slicing up a deer carcass inside his chilly Black Earth Meats butcher shop. Rose, a landowner inside the kill zone, asked, "What's the point of shooting all of our (local) deer first?"

Critics also point to Colorado, where wildlife managers for years believed CWD was safely confined to an area in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. That was until this spring, when CWD was discovered on the Western Slope, and is now been found all over northwest Colorado right up to the Utah border.

"If Colorado's proving anything right now," said Peck, the farmer, "it's proving that this thing develops sporadically in the wild."

But encouraged by experts, including Colorado Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller - who this spring told locals that Colorado should have done decades ago what Wisconsin is attempting today - DNR officials are sticking to their guns, so to speak.

"We are not prepared to concede the state to the disease," Hauge said. "Can we eradicate the disease in Wisconsin? We're not trying to snow anybody. What we are saying is this might be the best window we have."

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