Tough fight ahead in Wisconsin against deer disease
By Ron Seely, Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The fight against chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin deer is being hampered by politics and the powerful traditions of the state's annual deer hunt, according to officials and wildlife experts with the state Department of Natural Resources.
They say that even the agency's new 15-year plan for combating the fatal deer brain disease, in place for the start of the 2010 deer season, does not go far enough to control a disease they fear could spread statewide if not contained. That disturbing possibility became more real recently when a captive deer on a hunting preserve near Ashland tested positive for the illness.
Even so, Dave Clausen, a member of the Natural Resources Board, said the new plan is probably the best the agency can do in light of criticism of the DNR's past efforts, which have included longer and more numerous seasons, rules aimed at killing more female deer and the use of sharpshooters. The criticism has come from politicians, including Gov.-elect Scott Walker, and from some hunters.
"There are places where the plan does not go far enough," said Clausen. "But I don't think there is anything we could do that is politically feasible that would improve this plan much."
Ed Harvey, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a citizen group that advises the agency on outdoor sporting issues, agreed.
"It represents what is possible at this particular time," said Harvey. "Anything more aggressive and there would have been a massive loss of support."
Under the new plan, the DNR will:
-Change the original goal of eradicating the disease to controlling its spread, and reducing the number of infected deer in the state.
-Prevent new introduction of the disease by more strictly monitoring deer farms, and pursuing a statewide ban on baiting and feeding of deer.
-Control the spread of the disease by encouraging hunting in the CWD management zones and use of limited sharpshooting. The plan also calls for a more consistent season structure.
-Monitor disease trends and patterns.
-Improve the communication of the science of CWD to the public.
Central to the DNR's new plan for fighting CWD is the elimination of disease eradication as a goal, which has been controversial from the moment it was put in place not long after CWD was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002.
Instead, the plan aims to keep the disease from spreading outside the areas where it now exists in southern Wisconsin. Specifically, the new goal is to "minimize the area of Wisconsin where CWD occurs and the number of infected deer in the state."
Davin Lopez, CWD coordinator for the DNR, said the emergence of new science on CWD made eradication less realistic. Research showed, for example, that the prions - the deformed proteins that cause the disease - cling stubbornly to soil and can spread the illness.
"We could get rid of all the deer, but when they came back, they'd just get reinfected," said Lopez.
In addition, the rate at which the disease is spreading within the management zone has continued to climb despite more aggressive seasons and other permit changes designed to encourage hunters to kill more deer.
The DNR's data show that the disease is increasing in all sex and age groups in both eastern and western monitoring areas within the CWD management zone.
The additional seasons and special hunts seemed to do little but anger hunters, who lamented what they viewed as the loss of tradition represented by the single, nine-day gun deer season. In fact, a confusing slate of seasons statewide drew the ire of not only hunters, but the state Legislature.
A legislative committee held a hearing last year at which hunters and others unloaded on the agency, charging the DNR with everything from underestimating the size of the deer herd to ruining tradition and hunting ethics by establishing so-called "earn-a-buck" areas, where hunters were forced to shoot a female or young deer before killing a buck.
Last year, the number of deer killed statewide during the various deer seasons dropped 29 percent from 2008, a number cited by critics as proof of what they viewed as failed DNR policy, on both CWD and the deer hunt in general.
One of those critics, Anthony Grabski, is secretary of the Conservation Congress CWD committee and has served on the DNR's advisory group on the disease. He is highly critical of the new plan, both because he disagrees with the science on which it is based and because of the tangle of special seasons.
The DNR cites research that shows the disease spreads mostly from deer to deer as justification for its plan to reduce the density of the deer herd. But Grabski said other science actually shows spread of the disease is more closely linked to how frequently it occurs, meaning that thinning the deer herd would do little to control the disease.
Grabski also said the new plan retains a season structure that is too complex and actually discourages hunters, especially hunters who view the regular nine-day November hunt as an important tradition. He called for a return to traditional seasons, even within the CWD management zone.
"I sincerely believe more deer would be killed through this simple return to traditions," Grabski wrote.
But Lopez and others with the agency said the agency's approach of reducing density has been reviewed and approved by panels of outside experts and, despite the possible appearance in a captive deer in northern Wisconsin, has been kept largely in the southern third of the state.
Lopez said that in other states dealing with chronic wasting disease, especially Wyoming, natural resource officials have chosen to do nothing. The result has been that in both Wyoming and Colorado the disease has spread statewide.
That means, Lopez said, that if a so-called "silver bullet" comes along for treating the disease - an oral vaccine for the illness is believed to be possibly between four and eight years away - a state such as Wyoming would have a difficult time taking advantage of the advance.
Though Wisconsin's approach has been more aggressive, Lopez said the new plan is still a nod to political realities. Funding for the agency's CWD efforts has been repeatedly slashed, from an initial investment of about $12 million to just more than $2 million today. And Walker, a Republican, has already indicated he is unhappy with the agency's approach to the disease and to deer management in general.
Ideally, Lopez said, agency wildlife experts would have included more aggressive approaches to thinning the deer herd in the new plan, especially in the areas just outside the management zones where the real battle lines in the fight against the disease are drawn.
Lopez said keeping the disease from spreading outside those fringe areas would be easier with tools such as earn-a-buck permits and more extensive sharpshooting. But both of those methods are downplayed in the new plan, though they remain available for use on a more limited scale.
"The plan really strikes a balance between aggressive control and the realization that, ultimately, control is in the hands of politicians and the public," said Lopez. "There were some approaches we realized would just be political suicide."
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)