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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wis. DNR’s Cole Prolongs Failed CWD Policies

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Sixteen months have passed since Gov.-elect Tony Evers chose “the tree guy,” Preston Cole, to run the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Both men promised to restore science-based leadership to the DNR after eight years of designed neglect by Gov. Scott Walker and his science-denying DNR secretaries, Cathy Stepp and Dan Meyer.

Cole is a trained forester. He also served over a decade on Wisconsin’s seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy. Unfortunately, Cole is running the DNR less like a degreed forester and more like a confused politician who thinks he reports to Walker.

Cole’s shortcomings are most obvious in his handling of chronic wasting disease. Granted, Wisconsin has fumbled far more than scored since detecting CWD in February 2002 west of Madison. And yes, Walker’s administration sat in passive-aggressive resistance to CWD management as verified cases more than doubled from 1,362 during Jim Doyle’s 2003-2010 administration, to 3,676 during Walker’s 2011-2018 term; even though Walker tested less than half as many deer (60,418) as Doyle (125,388).

But when Evers ran for governor in 2018, he assured voters he would unleash science on CWD. And then Evers and Cole took office and left CWD out of their budget.

It didn’t help that they inherited a Natural Resources Board stocked with Walker appointees like Greg Kazmierski, a Pewaukee archery-shop owner. Somehow, Kazmierski’s barbershop-biology degree sways Sec. Cole as much as it did Walker, Stepp and Meyer.

Too harsh? Let’s review how Cole let Kazmierski dictate DNR policy the past year in Eau Claire’s Chippewa Valley, which has found six deer with CWD in the Brunswick and Drammen townships the past two years, and one 30 miles away in Dunn County. The next nearest cases are about 100 miles south.

In March 2018, the DNR chose seven ranking Wisconsin Conservation Congress members from the region to form a CWD advisory team to help respond to the outbreak. The WCC consists of five elected delegates from each of the state’s 72 counties. WCC members are mostly hunters, anglers and trappers; and they’re legislatively sanctioned to advise the NRB.

The Chippewa Valley team met publicly seven times last year to weigh options with DNR staff and local hunters, farmers and landowners. In early July 2019 the committee recommended mandatory CWD testing and in-person deer registration the first three days of the November 2019 gun season in six townships to assess CWD’s prevalence.

The committee’s plan had strong local support. Surveys found 64.5% of respondents favored mandatory tests and 70.5% supported in-person registration. On Sept. 3 last year, the DNR endorsed the plan during a press conference, with Kazmierski present.

DNR Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs said: “(This) is a prime example of the department working closely with citizens and the hunting community to address … CWD. We must all work together to stop … this deadly disease, (and we) are therefore following the citizens’ lead.”

Four weeks later, the DNR killed the plan. Its Oct. 2 press release said: “Following additional consideration and recommendations from the Natural Resources Board during (its) September meeting, the (DNR) is now asking hunters in the Chippewa Valley area to voluntarily have their deer tested for CWD” during gun season.

That statement is misleading. The Board neither discussed nor took action on the Chippewa Valley plan at its Sept. 25 meeting. Kazmierski merely filed a report suggesting a “directive” for “expanded testing without mandatory requirements,” as well as four other vague directives. None gave a timetable for action.

In an interview April 14, Kazmierski said he was surprised by the DNR’s Sept. 3 plan, but couldn’t explain why he neither expressed concern nor opposition during that press conference. He said the DNR agreed to the plan, but the Board never did. (By law, the DNR secretary can impose mandatory tests to assess wildlife disease risks.)

When I asked Cole on April 15 to explain the DNR’s reversal, he responded by email through his communications director, Sara Hoye. She said the agency chose voluntary testing “after receiving valuable feedback following our (Sept. 3) announcement.” The agency’s modest goal for the area’s approximately 425-quare-mile surveillance zone was 300 deer, but it collected only 262 samples voluntarily.

Cole’s “valuable feedback,” of course, came from Kazmierski, who has routinely monkey-wrenched DNR “rapid-response” plans to monitor outbreaks since the agency outlined them a decade ago in its 2010-2025 CWD plan.

Former NRB member Fred Clark, who resigned in October after six months on the Board, said in an interview April 16 he was surprised in September that Kazmierski opposed Chippewa Valley’s plan. Clark and Kazmierski worked together last year on the Board’s CWD subcommittee report, which they presented Sept. 25. Clark said Kazmierski supported mandatory testing and in-person registration when discussing how best to monitor CWD.

“I assumed Greg supported the DNR’s plan (Sept. 3) because it included the same things we discussed and agreed on,” Clark said. “I was surprised to hear he then strongly opposed it. His opposition ran counter to everything he and I had talked about.”

Clark said the DNR didn’t tell him in late September that it was backing out. However, he said he was sure Kazmierski “was having a lot more conversations with Preston (Cole) and the staff than I was.”

Clark thinks the DNR’s reversal was a mistake. “It was an immense frustration to the sporting community when the administration took that in a different direction,” Clark said. “The department staff has the best science and the best tools. They’re working hard and doing their best, but the leadership has to be there to support them.”

The Chippewa Valley CWD team sent a two-page letter Nov. 12, 2019, to NRB members. The team expressed “disgust” and “extreme disappointment” in the Board’s decision, and criticized the Board for not explaining its actions before or after the reversal. The team expressed fear that the DNR’s “passive” approach to CWD ensures deer hunting’s demise.

Its members also believe Kazmierski “bullied the rest of the NRB into backing down,” and wrote: “We express a lack of confidence in (Kazmierski) to carry out his duties without personal conflicts of interest.”

In response, NRB chair Frederick Prehn sent the team’s chair, David Zielke of Eau Claire, a brief form letter Nov. 26, but addressed nothing in the team’s letter. Prehn merely thanked them for their letter, invited them to watch future Board meetings on webcasts, and suggested they subscribe to the Board’s email or text updates.

When asked about the Board’s nonresponse and disrespect, team member Mark Noll of Buffalo County said: “Kazmierski’s resignation from the NRB would be of great benefit to Wisconsin.”

Maybe so, but Kazmierski succeeded in one thing: He showed Wisconsin that Preston Cole —so far at least — doesn’t trust science, conscience and DNR biologists to inform his decisions.

Voluntary sampling in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley produced 262 CWD samples in 2019, 38 short of the modest goal of 300. — Photo courtesy of Cuddeback Cameras

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