Magnitude of deer kill worries some

May 12, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist
Mount Horeb -- Cathy Cunningham is a mother of four who takes a dim view of hunters roaming the countryside and shooting deer near her home this spring.

"I don't want to have the kids in blaze orange vests all summer long," she said.

Cunningham's farmhouse lies near the heart of a 287-square-mile zone where the state Department of Natural Resources wants to wipe out the entire deer population to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease.

For Cunningham and her neighbors, the hunt is a new spin on NIMBYism, the "not-in-my-backyard" ethos that is usually reserved for commercial projects that disrupt the local way of life.

"Initially, there was sort of shock -- 'Oh my, do what you have to do,' " said John Donaldson, editor and general manager of the Black Earth News-Sickle-Arrow, which is in the zone. "As time wore on, people starting thinking, 'Wow! They are going to kill all of the deer?' "

While there are many supporters of the hunt as well, the DNR's plans have engendered anger because of the difficulty of killing deer when leaves begin to grow. Some also say that the DNR's plan to kill thousands of deer in a 9-mile radius is too extreme -- at least now.

Hunters could start killing up to 15,000 deer here this week -- making it the most intensive state-sanctioned hunt in Wisconsin history.

As an added control measure, the DNR also wants to expand the fall hunt in 10 surrounding counties and cut the deer population in half.

Chronic wasting disease is related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, and appears to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion that invades the brain and eventually kills it.

In Wisconsin, the disease was first discovered Feb. 28 during random tests on deer shot during last fall's hunt.

Since then, state officials have rushed to develop a plan to control the disease and stave off any chance it will threaten deer hunting in Wisconsin -- an industry that conservatively generates $233 million in annual revenue and provides $25 million in license fees to the DNR.

But while the massive hunt in the zone was once set to start the week of May 6, the DNR has pushed back the date to this week or later because it has not yet found a place to dump deer that are killed.

Last week, Dane County effectively halted the shoot because officials said they needed to know more about how thousands of dead deer would affect the safety of the county-owned landfill. Those questions could be cleared up this week.

The DNR remains committed to a policy of wiping out the deer by relying mostly on landowners to kill as many deer as they can. Sharpshooters are likely to hunt deer on state land in the zone, and more drastic measures under study include shooting deer with the use of planes and helicopters.

Gov. Scott McCallum underscored the state's resolve on Friday at a meeting in Wisconsin Dells, calling the disease "the most serious animal health crisis in our history."

"CWD is similar to a lifeboat heading over a life-threatening waterfall on a slow-moving stream," McCallum told members of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which advises the DNR on outdoor and environmental issues.

"Our goal is to get every person in the affected CWD area rowing for the safety of the shore together."

There has been little opposition elsewhere, and some living in the affected area support the kill, saying the disease must be eliminated.

But those living in the zone who are opposed to the spring hunt are becoming increasingly vocal.

An opposition group has formed in the past week. Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter wants to stop or slow the hunt. The group is threatening legal action.

"We think the DNR pulled the trigger too soon," said Mark Sherven, a former dairy farmer who owns 120 acres in the zone.

"We would like to see much more sampling and research on a quicker test (on deer for finding the disease). Then the DNR is going to get more landowner support."

So far, 14 of 516 deer sampled -- 2.7% -- have tested positive.

The Vermont Town Board plans to discuss a resolution Monday night that would oppose the DNR's plans.

Also, the Dane County Towns Association voted unanimously last week to discourage officials from dumping deer carcasses in Dane County landfills.

Aside from those who are opposed to the spring hunt, concern among others is rising, according to several political figures representing the area. They emphasized that almost no one thinks the DNR will get rid of all of the deer in this hilly region of forests and farms.

"I want to know who is going to shoot all of these deer and pull them out of woods," said Dane County Supervisor Vern Wendt of Mazomanie.

"Do we have the volunteer base at this time?"

Wendt owns 600 acres and represents the northern half of the zone. He will not hunt on his land this spring -- and he will not let anyone else.

Normally, hunters gut their deer before hauling them out of the woods. But the DNR wants these deer intact, meaning a hunter could be forced to drag 150 pounds up a steep, thicketed slope and take it to a drop-off site before heading back for more.

"Look at the hills," deer hunter Bill Hanson said from his living room, which affords a sweeping view of a valley that is growing greener by the day.

"There's prickly ash and undercover coming up. It's hard enough to see the deer in the fall -- now it's going to be practically impossible."

Hanson, who will not be hunting this spring on the 100 acres he owns and rents, thinks the DNR should wait until fall to start shooting deer.

But his primary concern is safety.

"Everybody wants to be outside now," said Hanson, a member of the Vermont Town Board and a retired Dane County deputy sheriff.

"They're riding bicycles, riding horses. Their kids are out in the yard.

"Somebody is going to get killed. I am a gun person, and I have been a gun person my whole life, and someone is going to get killed."

Indeed, the valleys and ridge tops are dotted with new homes -- part of Madison's outward migration. Much of the land is posted with signs that bar hunting. In nearby Mount Horeb, the population grew 42% in the 1990s to 5,960.

DNR officials think the spring hunt will be safe because only landowners -- or people they allow on their land -- can hunt.

Last year, seven people were killed by weapons during the state's gun deer hunting season, according to the DNR. That's the highest number since 1997, when eight people died in such accidents.

The agency downplayed the possibility of an early big kill and is now saying that much of the shooting could take place in fall, rather than now.

"We are not harboring any secret hopes that it will be accomplished in 60 days," said spokesman Bob Manwell. "It will take longer than that."

Among Rita Stanton's concerns is the effect on the ecosystem of deer.

"We're thinking, 'Go slow, don't be radical,' she said. "It's going to change everything."

Nearly everybody has a story about the overpopulation of deer.

The Mount Horeb woman in whose front yard a doe gave birth to fawns.

Local newspaper editor John Donaldson, who said deer were so thick two winters ago that his dogs didn't even get up to chase them.

And hairdresser Patsy Hofstetter, who said a buck crashed through two windows of her house.

"It came right though the north window and went out a 9-foot, sliding patio door," Hofstetter said. Six thousand dollars damage in three seconds."

Wiping out deer will not harm the environment but will probably improve it, according to Thomas Yuill, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Because of deer, "natural forest reproduction has been absolutely stopped," Yuill said. "Any time a new tree sticks up, a deer comes by and eats it."

The state's strategy to kill the local deer population and drastically thin the count in the surrounding area is aimed at saving Wisconsin's entire herd.

"I'm hearing the sooner we deal with this, the better," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who represents part of the zone.

"Hunters don't want to just kill things. They have a tremendous concern about the deer herd."

Dairy farmer Keith O'Connell and two other relatives own a combined 800 acres in the Town of Vermont. One of the 14 deer that tested positive came from his brother's land, and four others tested positive just outside his family's land.

"It's here," O'Connell said. "We believe we have had a problem for years."

O'Connell's concern: The possibility that scientists will find that the disease can spread to cattle. O'Connell is lining up two dozen people he knows to shoot deer.

"It won't be fun," he said. "It's taken all of the sport out of it."

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