DNR to get sweeping new powers

May 16, 2002 Capital Times by Anita Weier and Matt Pommer

Contact: Brett Hulsey, 608-334-4994 Friday, May 17th

It was a debate unique to Wisconsin. The deer culture and the farm culture mingled and clashed as the state Legislature spent a long night crafting a plan for handling chronic wasting disease.

After much argument, legislators early this morning gave the Department of Natural Resources the ability to shoot deer from aircraft and boats, and across dirt roads but not highways. They gave farmers the right to shoot deer from tractors, but not to shine deer. They rejected payment of bounties.

They let the DNR restrict deer feeding. The Assembly wanted to prohibit the DNR from regulating the use of bird feeders, but the Senate would not go along.

Since the fatal brain ailment was confirmed in 14 deer in the Mount Horeb area, the DNR has launched a plan to kill all the deer in that area in hope of stopping the disease from spreading. But the DNR needed money and authority from the Legislature and the governor, who still must sign the bill.

The DNR also was directed to provide notice and information to the public prior to commencing hunting of deer in the eradication zone.

After Rep. Mary Hubler, D-Rice Lake, introduced an amendment saying that the DNR could not regulate the use of bird feeders, Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, suggested that the result would be people saying that very large structures - such as garages - are bird feeders.

"There is no definition in the law or the dictionary or anything," he said, adding that deer would congregate at bird feeders and spread the disease.

Others argued that someday bird feeders might have to be regulated, because of other diseases that are spreading as birds and other animals become too populous.

The argument degenerated into bird calls before the amendment was approved by the Assembly but then rejected by senators in a negotiation process before a final vote on a combined bill. The final Assembly vote on the joint bill was 89-5 and the Senate concurred with a voice vote.

Rep. Steve Freese, R-Dodgeville, was so angry about the vision of sharpshooters shooting from helicopters over peaceful farm fields that he almost thwarted the whole anti-CWD plan. He made a parliamentary objection that the Assembly legislation contained specifics that were not in the governor's call for a special session. Freese finally dropped the objection to take the bill out of danger, but said he will lobby the governor to veto the killing of deer from aircraft.

Rep. Frank Boyle, D-Superior, argued loudly for tough measures.

"We have a chronic situation. We're already on CNN," Boyle said. "You know what will happen to this state if it spreads to the dairy herd? You could decimate the economy of this state. Who cares how you kill them? Don't err on the side of being timid."

It became ever more clear that the DNR is not trusted by numerous legislators and their constituents. But legislators, faced with the potential widespread effects of the disease, gave the agency most of the authority it wanted, though some measures still must be approved by the Natural Resources Board and the governor.

Much of the lengthy debate centered on how long a period the DNR could wield its new power before a sunset clause could end it. The final result was a sunset as of June 30, 2004 - three years sooner than a committee recommendation.

"I agree we have to kill the deer, but if we can't get it done in two years, it won't be done," said Freese. "If there is not a look-see for five years, they will be killing all kinds of animals."

Rep. Antonio Riley, D-Milwaukee, agreed that the Legislature should come back and check what is happening. "The last thing we want is a renegade department out there," Riley said.

But Hubler countered that "we have to give them some long-range planning tools."

And DuWayne Johnsrud, R-Eastman, who headed an Assembly committee that worked on devising the bill, said, "This body has to have the sense God gave a goose. This is the only opportunity to stop this disease."

Schneider warned that "there is nothing to prevent the governor from striking out any sunset."

"Yes, he can line-item veto," said Rep. John Gard, D-Peshtigo. "But my expectation is he will side with the majority viewpoint of the Legislature."

"I've served with lots of governors," responded Schneider. "They all screw us."

But perhaps the most Dairyland-style item was the debate about shooting deer from tractors.

"Farmers do not have much time, but they would be willing to help," said Rick Skindrud, R-Mount Horeb. "In the CWD elimination zone, a farmer or hired man should be allowed to carry a weapon on a tractor."

Johnsrud responded: "The only guy I know who shot from a tractor hit the loader and only has half an arm."

But Al Ott, R-Forest Junction, supported the amendment as a way to get closer to the animals, and Freese added it would help "kill all the deer we can."

The amendment passed on a voice vote.

The Senate rejected an Assembly amendment that if federal funds are received for fighting the disease, they should be used before state funds when possible. And the two houses compromised at giving $133,150 more to the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, in addition to the $900,000 that is included for the lab in the $4 million allocation to the Department of Natural Resources to fight the disease.

The sharpest debate in the Senate was on an amendment to limit the Department of Natural Resources' ability to restrict baiting and feeding of wild animals outside the affected areas.

Sen. Kevin Shibilski, D-Stevens Point, who proposed the amendment, argued there was no scientific answer to chronic wasting disease.

"We don't know what causes chronic wasting disease," said Shibilski, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, said it was the key issue before the Senate. "We need to ban feeding and baiting," he said.

Sen. Mark Meyer, D-Stevens Point, said scientists have warned Wisconsin officials that "we have one shot to eradicate this disease." If the state fails, the white-tailed deer herd will be gone in 15 to 20 years, he said.

Shibilski's amendment was rejected 22-10.

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