Hearts Heavy, Hunters Stalk Ailing Deer

September 14, 2002 New York Times by Jodi Wilgoren
Nothing was as it should be when Terry Frey lay down amid the brush under the falling sun to await his white-tailed prey.

The air was too warm for his camouflage jacket and orange vest. There was no autumn wind to mask the crunch of his knee-high rubber boots as he tip-toed across the grass. The corn was above his shoulders, and the leaves on the trees blocked his view. The gun on his shoulder was a .270-caliber rifle, not his usual 12-gauge shotgun. Instead of stalking a meaty doe or a buck with trophy antlers, he was out to kill any deer that crossed his path. Its carcass would be bound for burning rather than the family freezer.

"I was brought up to shoot only what I can eat -- I don't shoot them just to kill," Mr. Frey, 48, said as he reluctantly set out Thursday evening for the last of four special summer hunts here in the heart of the newly established Chronic Wasting Disease Eradication Zone.

"Now we go out and shoot a deer and you throw it in the Dumpster. That's just not how you do things."

This is the season of hunters' ambivalence.

Worried over the discovery here last year of the wasting disease, which ravages deer's brains, state officials launched an aggressive plan to kill 25,000 deer in the 389-square-mile eradication zone in southern Wisconsin, and to conduct tests on another 25,000 deer throughout the state this fall. But many here in the small towns west of Madison see the special hunts as gross overreaction to nature's own population control, and at least 300 landowners, representing a third of the zone's acreage, have signed petitions protesting the hunts.

Even those who are cooperating, like Mr. Frey, who has hunted here since he was 12, seem uncomfortable as their beloved hobby is turned into workmanlike execution. Among the changes: rifles, which have about twice the range of shotguns but are normally restricted for safety reasons, are being allowed in the three-county eradication zone for the first time, and kill limits have been lifted.

Unlike its deadly cousin, mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease has not yet proved dangerous to humans. But it is already threatening the way of life here in Wisconsin, where 444,384 deer were killed last year, where hunting is a $1 billion annual industry and where generations have spent a week each autumn bonding in the woods. Sales of hunting licenses are down about a third, and if the eradication effort succeeds, experts expect it to take 5, 10 or 15 years for the herd to return to the zone.

"It's really important to our family," said Marc Nelson, 43, who took this week off from work for the special hunt, and has killed 14 deer in the area this summer. "It's tradition, it's what we do in the fall, it's where we get our meat.

"It's pretty much going to be over after this year, as we know it. The whole thing is sad. I feel bad for the deer, too."

Opponents to the state plan say eradication is impossible, and that the dangers of the disease have been exaggerated: 31 deer, or 2.6 percent of the 1,195 tested so far, were infected. They say the plague itself will control deer overpopulation, which they attribute to crowding caused by suburban sprawl and the influx of upper-class professionals who view deer more like pets than prey. In addition, breeding has been rampant because many hunters today are reluctant to shoot does for meat, holding out for bucks with bigger antlers.

"If you went out and tested 1,000 people, tested them from head to toe, how many of them are going to have cancer?" asked Paul Julson, a police officer in nearby Dodgeville who has hunted in the area for 30 years. "Mother Nature says we have a problem, what does Mother Nature do? C.W.D. I'm not saying we don't have a problem; they're just going about it backwards."

Chronic wasting disease, first found in Colorado in 1967 and since discovered in deer and elk in nine other states, is caused by aberrant proteins called prions, which infect the animals' brains and cause their muscles and organs to degenerate. It is similar to mad cow disease, which has killed 135 Britons and untold cattle since 1996, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a fatal disorder that about 300 Americans develop each year.

Scientists believe chronic wasting disease can spread among deer through nose-to-nose contact, and though there is no evidence of it infecting humans, many experts warn against eating meat from neighborhoods where infected deer have been found. As a result, food pantries here have stopped accepting venison. The disease has been found in a 20,000-acre expanse in the West, hitting as much as 8 percent of the herd in parts of Colorado.

To avoid such growth, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has adopted the nation's most aggressive approach, extending the hunting season in the hot zone and allowing people here to kill a prized buck only after first taking a doe.

"There is really no other way to go about it -- wildlife specialists, veterinarians and wildlife managers have told us this is the way to go," said Kyle LaFond, a big-game ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources. "We also have such an abundant food supply -- and deer are such fantastic reproducers anyway -- they will rebound quite nicely."

Prof. Tom Givnish, a botanist and evolutionary biologist at the Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin, suggested an even more radical approach: form a human circle around the eradication zone, lure the deer with spotlights, and use sharp-shooters.

"We need to kill the host population as quickly as possible, and it seems extremely unlikely that an uncoordinated hunt will do it," Professor Givnish said. "You have to eliminate the host faster than the disease spreads."

Two protest groups that have sprung up in recent months, Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter and Citizens and Landowners for a Rational Response, are considering a lawsuit to block the eradication.

"They don't understand the enemy they are fighting," Ross Reinhold, who lives in Mount Horeb, near what is known as ground zero of the disease, said of the Department of Natural Resources. "We support population reduction, more testing and monitoring of the spread of the disease, not wholesale slaughter."

Colorado, Mr. Reinhold said, is "using a scientifically-based approach; we are using a militarily-based approach."

The summer's first three special hunts killed 959 deer, and at least 350 were shot Saturday through Thursday. The final hunt ended today.

At one of two registration stations in the eradication zone where hunters must drop off their deer for testing, there was no exultation over the glory of the kill Thursday night.

State employees in blue suits, hands gloved, dragged doe after doe from the backs of pickups, dropping them onto the blood-streaked plastic covering a pair of picnic tables. Under klieg lights, the men yanked a tooth from each specimen, to determine its age. They slit through fur with a butcher knife, then took a hack-saw to the vertebrae. The severed heads were double-bagged; the bodies were tossed onto a pile in the back of a huge refrigerated truck, destined for an incinerator.

Off to the side, the hunters marked the locations of their kills on a map. About 15 percent have chosen to keep the meat, storing it until test results arrive in three to six months.

"What keeps everybody going, the thrill of hunting, really isn't there," said Tony Cowling, who owns 188 acres outside Cross Plains and brought his sixth dead doe of the summer in on Thursday. "So far this summer it isn't really like hunting. It's just shooting deer, basically."

Earlier that evening, Mr. Frey, who owns a drywall business, left his log-house living room, where five deer heads, an elk and an antelope look down from the walls, and loaded his Winchester rifle at the edge of his 30-acre property. As he trudged up a hill, two shots rang out from the west. While he lay under the brush, two more came from the south.

Mr. Frey emerged as darkness enveloped the hill, empty-handed, and only half-disappointed.

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