March 23, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Joel McNallyThere is something truly heart-warming about the grave concern of hunters all over the state for the good health of the Wisconsin deer they go up north every year to slaughter by the hundreds of thousands.
It just goes to show that deer hunting has never been personal. Wisconsin hunters wish nothing but the best for wild deer and their families right up until the moment hunters put a bullet through their heads.
* Sadly, the health and happiness of our state's deer are threatened by the appearance of so-called "mad deer" disease in Wisconsin. Those who don't like hunting may think deer have every reason to be mad when their homes are regularly invaded by armed galoots blasting off firearms in every direction. You'd be mad too if your Thanksgiving dinner was constantly getting interrupted by someone bursting in and shooting the wife and kids. But this madness among deer goes much deeper than that. It is caused by a form of chronic wasting disease similar to the "mad cow" disease that has threatened beef consumption in Europe.
Interestingly, the form of the disease that affects deer and elk seems to have started on privately operated elk ranches in the West. Those captive elk breeding grounds are operated for the benefit of high rollers who want the experience of shooting a large animal without having to go to all the trouble of looking very hard for them.
This form of huntless hunting is even easier than shooting fish in a barrel since elk are a lot bigger.
Hunting proponents never draw the line at any form of recreational animal decimation, but now they are finding their future fun endangered by such blood lust. Somehow chronic wasting disease among captive elk in Colorado and Wyoming spread to wild herds. Now the disease has reached deer in Wisconsin.
Only three diseased deer showed up in last year's hunt. But the Department of Natural Resources is beginning a program of systematically shooting 500 deer over a wide area to determine the extent of the disease. That could be just the beginning.
Out west government biologists are exterminating thousands of deer and elk. There are grisly descriptions of mass graves and huge funeral pyres. It's a scene out of the classic film "Hud" in which Paul Newman's cattle-ranching father had to destroy his entire livelihood.
There are no known cases of the disease among deer and elk spreading to cattle or humans. The latter may not be an overriding concern. Human life is pretty cheap around here anyway among folks who are fond of guns. Note the current political campaign to permit concealed carry of firearms.
But you can bet America's Dairyland will spare no effort to protect our sacred cows.
What is shaping up could be a real clash of cultures. The DNR wants to destroy as many deer as necessary to eradicate a frightening disease whose total impact on human life and livestock is not yet known.
Some hunters already are grumbling that shooting 500 deer to combat a disease is like the Vietnam general who advocated destroying villages in order to save them. Hunters advocate the opposite. They want to save as many deer as possible for hunters to destroy.
Exposed, of course, is the hypocrisy of the arguments hunters have used for years to justify their sport. They've always argued that hunting was a great big favor they were doing for the conservation of wildlife.
By thinning deer herds, hunters were making sure there would be enough to eat for the remaining deer. It was their small contribution to combat deer hunger. All the animals who managed to escape the hail of gunfire would grow healthy, wealthy and wise, at least until next year.
With the eager compliance of the DNR, the political thrust in recent years has been toward extending the length of the regular hunting season and adding every kind of special hunt imaginable. The ultimate dream is to permit the shooting of anything that moves 365 days a year.
* But now there is a sense of panic in the hunting community. If disease sweeps through Wisconsin's deer herd, no one knows how many deer could die from natural causes.
What if "harvesting" is no longer required to manage our state's deer herds? What if, in fact, the number of deer in Wisconsin begins to drop without any help at all from 650,000 blaze orange conservationists with deadly weapons?
Those self-proclaimed environmentalists might even have to begin actively conserving wildlife instead of just blowing it away.
That's why Wisconsin sportsmen are fervently praying for an end to this tragic, crippling disease so that once again deer can romp happily through our woods and streams. At least long enough for hunters to get a really good bead on them.
EDITOR-NOTE: Joel McNally is a Milwaukee writer.