Whoa on deer kill, property owners' lawyer tells DNR

May 17, 2002 Capital Times (Madison, WI) by Samara Kalk
The Department of Natural Resources is jumping the gun on eradication as the way to combat chronic wasting disease, argues an attorney representing property owners in the zone targeted for a mass deer kill.

David Mandell is fuming about the accelerated pace of the DNR's plan to eradicate all deer in a 287-square-mile zone where 14 deer with CWD have been discovered since late February.

"The DNR is skewing the statistics and hasn't been completely open with the Legislature and the public in an effort to stampede the public into accepting their proposal," said Mandell, who is representing landowners in and around the town of Vermont, where the epidemic is centered.

As the state Legislature broadened the DNR's powers to fight the disease Thursday, Gov. Scott McCallum and other Wisconsin officials were in Washington, D.C., garnering federal support. The state Legislature authorized $4 million in state funds early Thursday when it met in special session. McCallum's request for $4 million in federal funds to battle the deadly deer and elk disease remains uncertain.

McCallum was grilled by Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health. Inslee cited four-year-old memos to and from state officials raising the possibility that chronic wasting disease was introduced to Wisconsin by a game farm animal.

"I'm having a hard time figuring out how a state like Wisconsin, that is so dependent on the integrity of its food industry to its economy, would not have responded quicker and in a more effective way to this infestation," Inslee said.

McCallum asserted that animals were tested at the time and none came back positive.

Mandell, in the meantime, is interested in seeing DNR records of how many animals were tested and where.

Todd Peterson, of the DNR's Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the agency has tested between 800 and 900 animals -- not including the 500 recently sampled in south-central Wisconsin - in nearly one-third of the agency's deer management units.

"We haven't sampled as much as we would have liked. We are clearly going to step that up now because the resources have been made available by the Legislature," Peterson said.

It is unlikely that the disease is in other parts of the state "because we have looked," he said. And when the agency tested, "everywhere except Vermont township, we haven't found it."

The DNR has had a wildlife health program in the state for 17 years. And while it has not specifically investigated for CWD, it has relied on reports from the public and its field biologists since the mid-1980s, said Peterson.

Animals that look suspicious or are found dead are subject to necropsy, he said.

"So we've done some kind of surveillance, in fact, for quite a long time, and it has never shown up," Peterson said.

The state Legislature Thursday gave the DNR the ability to shoot deer from aircraft and boats and across dirt roads.

These scenarios also trouble Mandell.

"If the landowners don't cooperate, what are they going to do, just come on people's land shooting? Flyovers? Make it like Vietnam?" he said.

Mandell cited expert testimony Charles Southwick gave in Washington Thursday. Southwick - a professor emeritus of environmental, population and organismic biology at the University of Colorado and former professor of pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore - said that the mass slaughter of infected animals would not be effective.

"Present and recent control strategies of mass culling do not seem to be working. The disease has spread despite extensive slaughter of both captive and wild deer and elk," he told the U.S. House Committee on Resources.

Eradication plans have even been known to spread the disease, he said.

Mass extermination can increase movements and dispersal of deer and elk, Southwick said, and destroy healthy stock, which often holds the key to genetic resistance.

Mandell concurs.

"If they start shooting, is that going to disperse sick animals out of the eradication zone into other areas of the state? These are migratory creatures to some degree. They don't know where the state line is. They don't know where borders are. They don't know where the eradication zone is."

The likelihood of being able to kill 100 percent of the deer is impossible, Mandell said.

"Realistically they are hoping for between 80 and 90 percent, but then if you have 20 percent of the herd left and some of them are sick, how does that solve anything?" he said.

Mandell lives in the town of Middleton, about eight or nine miles east of the hot zone, and said he can identify with the fears of his clients.

"Think if you live out there. You can't go horseback riding. You can't go snowmobiling. You can't go biking. You can't go hiking. You can't go walking. There are going to be yahoos everywhere running around shooting willy-nilly," he said.

People who own land in the target area are also concerned about the adverse economic impact the hunt is going to have on their property values and on the aesthetics of their land, said Mandell.

"If the DNR knew it was going to be effective, people might be willing to consider that. But they don't even know. This is just a knee-jerk response," he said.

Biologist Matt McKay, an assistant big game ecologist for the DNR, maintains that the DNR plan is the best course. The agency needs to harvest as many animals as possible to reduce the spread of the disease, he said.

Leaving it alone would be a mistake, said McKay.

"The more we don't hunt, the deer population will increase to a certain point and will increase the rate of transmission," he said.

The DNR's Peterson said the agency will use the hunting season to collect the majority of the deer it seeks to eradicate. While the state Legislature gave the department new authority Thursday, the DNR, along with the Natural Resources Board, will develop a specific plan.

As for critics of the DNR plan, Peterson has limited patience for them.

"Do you know what their alternative is?"

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