Crafting plan to fight deer ailment tough

June 10, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Lee Bergquist
Wisconsin is discovering that finding a way to attack chronic wasting disease can be as elusive as the deer themselves.

Since February, when the public first learned that three deer had tested positive for the fatal brain disease, state officials have had to craft a broad and bold strategy that deals with everything from public relations to how to dispose of dead deer.

While not universal, many of the state's decisions have been criticized by an array of folks who take Wisconsin's white-tailed deer very seriously.

Some landowners have been wary of a summer deer hunt near the center of a killing zone where the Department of Natural Resources wants to wipe out 15,000 deer.

The chairman of the Natural Resources Board has been hotly critical of the agency for its role in getting a test in place for the disease by this fall. He is also concerned that DNR officials will recommend this month at the board meeting to ban baiting of deer -- a practice of setting out feed so deer will congregate in a specific area. There also has been criticism that the state has not done enough to test deer outside of the zone, and that the government has largely ignored deer and elk farms as a possible source of the introduction of the disease.

Public outcry, fanned by uncertainty, has forced state officials to change some of their strategies almost as soon as they made them, underscoring the difficulty of crafting a policy when decisions have to be made quickly.

The DNR has backed away from a more aggressive summer hunt. And just last week, the agency pulled an about-face and decided that unwanted deer from a 361-square-mile killing zone in Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties will be burned in a Poynette pet crematorium, rather than a Jefferson County landfill as planned.

Earlier, the DNR had sent some deer to Dane County's landfill, but county officials stopped the practice until questions about the long-term safety of landfills filled with dead deer could be answered.

"It was one of those issues you thought you had behind you," said Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell.

But despite some setbacks, officials also say the discovery of the mysterious disease has forced bold action.

Killing 15,000 deer is unprecedented in Wisconsin history, and the state might be able to nip the disease in the bud. But if left unchecked, computer modeling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown the disease could spread from the zone and decimate Wisconsin's deer herd throughout the state.

So far, experts have estimated that about 3% of deer in the zone have the disease, which is caused by a little-known, abnormal protein called a prion that lodges in the brain and lymph nodes of deer and eventually kills them.

The World Health Organization has said there is no scientific evidence that the disease can infect humans. But the organization has said that no part of a deer or elk with evidence of the disease should be eaten.

A fast learning curve

Most people in Wisconsin knew nothing about the disease until a little more than three months ago.

On Feb. 28, when a state veterinarian was notified by a federal laboratory in Iowa that the disease had turned up, the secretaries of natural resources, agriculture and health met that day in Gov. Scott McCallum's office with staff experts.

Within a week, state officials had decided that virtually every deer near Mount Horeb, where the first three deer tested positive, would have to be killed.

"Given what we knew about the science, eradication seemed to be the obvious strategy," recalled Bazzell. "We knew we had to find a way to protect the long-term white-tailed deer population."

Wisconsin looked to Colorado and other western states. Colorado has had the disease for two decades, but this year it began shooting wild deer as the disease for the first time moved across the Rocky Mountains to the western slope.

"As wildlife professionals, the idea of disassembling a wildlife population is not desirable . . . but this really isn't something that we can let go," said Mike Miller, Colorado state veterinarian on a visit to Wisconsin this spring.

He said Colorado should have done more to stop the disease sooner.

"If people understood then what we know now, we wouldn't be here," Miller said. "Hopefully, we can stop this in its tracks in Wisconsin."

Herd reduction the key

Wisconsin's plan: Shoot as many of the deer in the zone as possible, and reduce the deer population in 10 nearby counties by 50%.

But Wisconsin differs from the West, where there is more public land and the population density is lower.

Officials set their scorched earth policy even before the DNR started killing 500 deer to test for the disease in the zone where deer killing began Saturday.

Public meetings also were held across the state. State officials attended legislative hearings and convinced the Legislature, which has stalled on a budget repair bill, to provide $4 million in funding to fight the disease.

Meantime, groups of experts from across state government were huddling almost daily to exchange information and plot strategy, employing a command structure that state government reserves for emergencies like tornadoes and forest fires.

For the most part, the public appears to support the mass shooting. The executive committee of the Conservation Congress, a powerful outdoors group that advises the DNR, backed the initiative.

"We got good feedback, but then things slowed down as people began to think through it," Bazzell said.

Hunt delayed

The shooting was pushed back as the the DNR tried to work out logistics of killing thousands of deer. Meanwhile, spring blossomed and easy-to-find deer became lost in a canopy of green.

Some landowners, especially in the Town of Vermont in Dane County in the center of the zone, complained about a summer-long hunt when people would be outside in greater numbers. A group calling itself Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter called for smaller hunt.

The DNR backpedaled and agreed to reduce the kill to one week this month and then again for one week per month in July, August and September.

"I think they adjusted a little bit with that one-week per month hunt," said Dave Ladd of Dodgeville, chairman of the Big Game Committee of the Conservation Congress. "I think it allows landowners to have a little more of a normal lifestyle this summer."

Trygve Solberg, chairman of the Natural Resources Board, said the repercussion of doing nothing would be devastating.

Already-reluctant hunters would stay out of the woods, further driving up the deer population until the disease eventually wiped them out, Solberg said. But until then, a burgeoning deer population could cause mass deer starvation, increase traffic accidents and cause more crop damage.

Moving too slowly?

Solberg is not happy with what he believes is foot dragging by the DNR and agriculture department toward getting a laboratory test in place in Wisconsin by fall so hunters could check the safety of their venison and return confidence to the safety of their meat.

Solberg, a Minocqua businessman, said he believes that private labs could take on hundreds of thousands of tests for hunters that the state animalveterinary lab in Madison can't handle.

"Between the DNR and (the agriculture department), they are going to do everything they can to make sure we are not going to have private testing labs," Solberg said.

He said he is also troubled that Colorado offers testing for its hunters while Wisconsin does not.

Bazzell said the testing situation in Colorado is much different than Wisconsin because Wisconsin is a far bigger deer-hunting state despite Colorado's big-game culture.

"It's sheer numbers -- they are testing for 500, 1,000 hunters -- we're talking about 15,000 carcasses in a 9-mile (radius) area," Bazzell said. "Clearly Trygve is expressing a lot of frustration."

Bazzell and state Agriculture Secretary Jim Harsdorf say they are not trying to slow down the process of getting approval of private labs and they have met with federal officials about it.

Testing is largely regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and because Wisconsin has so many more hunters than other states that have the disease, federal authorities have not had to license private labs for deer testing, they said.

The agriculture community is also concerned that someone could inappropriately use a test on a dairy cow and spread fears about mad cow disease throughout America's Dairyland.

Mad cow disease, which is related to chronic wasting disease, has not been found in the United States.

Should baiting be banned?

Baiting and feeding of deer is also controversial. The executive committee of the Conservation Congress has voted to recommend a moratorium on both for three years, since many wildlife scientists believe the disease could be spread by nose and mouth contact between deer when they congregate to feed.

Hunters often bait and feed deer to attract the animals so they can be shot more easily. Many non-hunters feed deer so they can view deer more easily.

Solberg said he is not sure how he will vote if asked to ban baiting or feeding. But he said the practice has been common for decades, especially in the North Woods. Banning the practice will invite criticism, he said.

John Stauber of Madison and co-author "Mad Cow U.S.A." said the DNR should be testing deer across the state -- not just in a small pocket west of Madison.

"Until we do that, we don't have any way to figure out how big of a deal this really is," said Stauber, whose book is critical of animal health regulation. "I suspect it's quite widespread."

A statewide testing program for the disease would require thousands more deer to be killed to be statistically significant, and the state does not have laboratory capacity to do it, DNR spokesman Bob Manwell said.

Stauber also would like to see more testing of farm-raised deer and elk in Wisconsin, since game farms have been a source of chronic wasting disease in the West.

But the agriculture department said it would have to kill virtually every deer and elk in captivity to get a good sample -- and no law exists now to compensate farmers for their losses.

"I think the industry has been a responsible partner -- they have done a lot," Harsdorf said.

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