Mad Deer Crisis in Wisconsin Continues

From Isthmus newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin
Aug. 20, 2002
Chronic wasting credibility
DNR accused of "political agenda" on deer disease
By Brian McCombie

If anybody has the right to say, "I"ll told you so," it"s John Stauber. The
Madison activist and author, who co-wrote the 1997 book Mad Cow U.S.A.,
warned years ago that chronic wasting disease could make its way to
Wisconsin, especially if certain risky practices -- like importing elk from
game farms in already-infected states -- were not halted. But state
officials did not listen.

Now that CWD is here, Stauber is pleased to note, people seem to be
taking a more skeptical view toward the pronouncements and proposed remedies
of state officials.

"I've been extremely impressed with the response of John and Jane
Citizen across the state on this issue," says Stauber, citing widespread
distrust of official claims that deer meat is safe to eat. "People
understand that these assurances -- that CWD poses no human health threat --
are simply based on wishful thinking and the self-interest" of the DNR and
Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

As of mid-August, statewide sales of deer licenses were down 30% from
the same time last year. And many landowners in the 389-square-mile
"Eradication Zone" near Mount Horeb -- where the state Department of Natural
Resources has proposed killing 25,000 deer -- oppose the plan and say they
won't allow hunting on their land.

Dr. John Barnes, a veterinarian from Mt. Vernon and spokesperson for
the group Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter, says petitions against
the kill have been signed by the owners of 70,000 acres within the zone;
that"s 28% of the total area. He sees it as a rebuke to the DNR"s chosen
course of action.

"There's a political agenda here instead of a biological one," says
Barnes. "They're making a grandstand play here, knowing full well that
[eradication] is not attainable."

One problem with the DNR"s approach, says Barnes, is that it ignores
the "environmental contamination" that he says has "happened in every place
where they've found this disease." Once a game farm's infected, new animals
start getting CWD, even after the facility's been sprayed with
industrial-strength disinfectants. Some CWD experts think the soil itself
becomes contaminated.

This means, says Barnes, that a massive kill-off will not end the
problem. Spots where infected deer have congregated could spread CWD for

Barnes and his group say more research needs to be done to determine
two things: whether the Mt. Horeb area is really the only place in Wisconsin
affected with CWD, and just how CWD is spread. "We don't want our deer
eradicated without some due diligence on the DNR's part," says Barnes,
adding that his group is not inflexible. "If the state is tested, and [the
eradication zone] is the only site of the disease, there would probably be a
rethinking of our opposition."

English organic farmer Mark Purdey, dissatisfied with the British
government's explanation of how mad cow got started there, came up with his
own theory that placed the blame on several environmental factors. It holds
that agricultural practices (including the prolific use of pesticides and
fertilizers) created high levels of magnesium and low levels of copper in
people and animals which, combined with an increase in ultra-violet rays,
produced the brain-cell abnormalities that characterize diseases like CWD.
(For more, see

Some members of Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter adhere to
the Purdey"s theory, as do certain deer hunters, including Jay Tappen of Eau
Claire. In Tappen's view, the DNR's eradication plan is completely
misguided, since the root cause of the problem, he believes, is
environmental contamination, not infected deer.

Like most Purdey adherents, Tappen also believes CWD can"t spread
between deer or between species, including people.

Stauber rejects this theory. "That's an extremely dangerous
extrapolation, that has no basis in science or the real world," he says.
"But it's a very attractive idea to some people."

According to Stauber, "decades of scientific experiments [and]
real-world observations" support the idea that CWD is the result of a
strange malformation in a brain-cell protein called the prion, and that this
disease is infectious, passing between deer. So far, the jury's out on
potential risks to people.

Not everyone accepts that the decline in deer-hunting licenses signals a
public repudiation of the DNR"s approach. Pat Durkin, a lifelong hunter and
outdoor columnist (his work appears in the Wisconsin State Journal), chalks
it up to uncertainty, not dissent. He says many deer hunters just don't know
what to make of CWD as a potential threat to deer or people. So they're
hesitant to hunt.

"You keep waiting for a focal leader to come forward and take charge of
this," he says. "But it's a hot potato."

That said, Durkin concedes there are real problems with the DNR"s
eradication scheme. "Sixty-percent in an election is a landslide," he notes.
"But here the DNR's asking for 100% cooperation" of landowners and hunters.
This in itself makes eradication near-impossible, he feels.

But Tom Hauge, chief of the DNR's wildlife division, feels there"s been
"tremendous" support from landowners in the Eradication Zone. What about the
CAIDS petition? "I think some of the people who've been participating with
us may well have signed the petition," he says, noting that it calls for
more research but doesn't necessarily disallow hunting on their property.

To be fair, the DNR's never claimed eradicating these deer will be
easy. "Honestly, we don't know if we can get to zero," says Hauge, who
expects the effort will take years. He admits that fears about human health
risks have probably thrown off hunting-license sales, but says, "I don't
think that's unexpected. People are trying to make up their minds."

Hauge agrees there is a need for more research but says "a heck of a
lot" is already going on. But the studies now underway "will not yield the
answers [critics] want this October or November or next October or

In the meantime, Hauge says the DNR needs to stay the course,
especially if there is some basis for arguments about CWD is contaminating
the environment: "That environmental contamination is only going to get
stronger as the disease gains prevalence in the herd."

Stauber: "People understand that these assurances -- that CWD poses no human
health threat -- are simply based on wishful thinking."

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