Hunters aren't getting good advice

October 17, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Ron Seely

Consider the plight this fall of a longtime hunter like Bob Donahue of Verona.

Donahue has hunted most of his life. He has always eagerly anticipated the coming of this season with its color and its cool days and nights and, most of all, that first, early morning of hunting when you're in the field and waiting for light.

But this year it is mid-October, the hunt is days away. And Donahue, instead of looking forward to another fall afield, is standing in a Mount Horeb gymnasium scratching his head and wondering what the heck has happened. Tuesday night, at the latest public meeting on chronic wasting disease, Donahue looked utterly perplexed. And he admitted he is still struggling with the question of whether to hunt in this season when a fatal deer disease has turned one of Wisconsin's longest and deepest traditions upside down.

Donahue, a slight and soft-spoken man who wore jeans and a camouflage shirt, said he is leaning toward hunting. But he said he still has a lot of unanswered questions. And his wife has warned that, if he hunts, she doesn't want any of the venison in her freezer.

It is probably true that the great majority of hunters out there are much like Donahue. Sure, there are the hunters who say they are too afraid to hunt at all. And there are those who say they'll hunt deer and eat venison, no matter what.

But many hunters, more than likely, are similar to Donahue in that they are trying to sift through a jumble of complicated information about a little-known disease and come to some sort of reasonable, logical conclusion.

Unfortunately, for these hunters, getting sound and unbiased advice on the dangers of chronic wasting disease is about as difficult as bagging a 30-point buck. First, this is a confusing disease caused not by a virus or a bacteria but by a deformed protein. Even scientists who are studying such diseases say there is much we don't know, including what causes the disease, how it spreads, and whether it can be passed to humans, as mad cow disease was in England.

Also, hunters trying to sort everything out are faced with the unenviable task of doing so during an election year. Politicians get strange during election years. It becomes way too tempting for them to weigh in on high-profile issues - even when they don't necessarily have their facts straight.

Consider the issue of testing. Darrell Bazzell, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, has repeated several times at legislative hearings and elsewhere that the standard tests used for detecting chronic wasting disease are not food safety tests. Experts at the UW-Madison have also pointed this out. The only thing a positive test tells you is that one of the disease-causing prions was detected in a specific tissue at the time of the test. The disease may be in what scientists call a "pre-clinical" state, meaning that it may be present in an animal but not at a late enough state where it would show up on a test. Or the disease may be present in a tissue that wasn't tested.

Yet, a number of politicians, including Gov. Scott McCallum, have hammered away at testing as though it is the one thing that will get hunters into their tree stands. Testing is a valuable tool for the DNR, in that it allows the agency to determine where and to what degree the disease is present in the state.

But the emphasis on testing may be misleading. Some hunters probably believe that if their deer tests negative, they don't have anything to worry about. That's not true at all.

Tuesday, just before the public meeting in Mount Horeb, McCallum said in a press release that more tests will be offered hunters this fall and that the hunters can even take the samples themselves. Though McCallum's release mentioned on the second page that the test isn't a food safety test, a similar release from U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay, didn't mention this crucial fact at all.

McCallum's release didn't mention an important comment this week from UW-Madison prion disease experts. Those scientists said they are not in favor of hunters taking test samples themselves because of the risk of coming in contact with the prions or spreading them to the rest of the deer.

With omissions such as this, it's no wonder that hunters like Donahue are left scratching their heads and wondering what to believe.

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