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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Legislature Sits Indifferent as CWD Infects 60% of Counties

Wisconsin welcomed the deer herds of Polk and Trempealeau counties to its CWD-tainted roster in late October, leaving only 29 of the state’s 72 counties with no verified cases of the fatal disease in free-ranging whitetails.

That’s one advantage of Wisconsin’s voluntary testing program: We can pretend chronic wasting disease is only in the 43 counties where it’s been documented, thanks to the 30% of hunters who have gotten their deer tested over the years. Meanwhile, we remain willfully ignorant of CWD’s actual range because most successful hunters (91% in 2019) take their deer home and eat/serve it without a test.

Blame lawmakers, not the Department of Natural Resources, for that apathy. Wisconsin’s Legislature has done more to hasten CWD’s spread than stymy it in the 21 years since its discovery. The DNR tested 40,116 deer that year and detected CWD in 208 deer (0.52%): 110 cases in Iowa County, 94 in Dane, two in Sauk, and one each in Richland and Walworth counties. In 2022, the DNR documented 1,492 cases (17,200 tests, 8.7%).

Even so, the Legislature ended the DNR’s statewide bait/feed ban in 2003, stonewalled mandatory testing, quashed targeted shooting in CWD hotspots, slashed research funding in 2007, outlawed earn-a-buck regulations in 2011, and OK’d ending or shortening various October, January and February antlerless gun seasons in 2011.

Those moves and staunch partisan politics even convinced Democratic governors Jim Doyle and Tony Evers that CWD isn’t worth the political angst.

The Legislature’s only concession to common sense is a ban on deer baiting/feeding in specific counties if CWD is found in the county or within 10 miles of its borders. Even then, lawmakers imposed wishful thinking, requiring the bans be lifted if the DNR doesn’t verify a second case within three years.

Finding more CWD cases is seldom a problem, however, so the law is just another bureaucratic nuisance. Therefore, deer baiting/feeding is now banned in 62 counties; leaving only Ashland, Bayfield, Brown, Door, Douglas, Iron, Kewaunee, Pierce, Price and St. Croix to the “save our bait” crowd.

Sigh. Lawmakers should just impose the bans statewide and be done with it. Of course, if they were thinkers, they’d also reinstate carcass tags for deer hunting, and self-congratulate themselves.

Instead, the same well-gerrymandered Legislature indulges those who think Northwoods deer will prosper if we simply persecute wolves. Their endless pandering suggests fewer wolves would also spare us the stress and financial costs of predation on pets and livestock, but they never mention the losses caused by endemic CWD and a declining hunter population.

Those are odd oversights, given that Northwoods residents and tourists have long endured more perils and healthcare costs from deer ticks than wolves. In 2022, Wisconsin had 5,327 cases of Lyme disease, more than double the number of cases in 2007; and the Northwoods accounts for more Lyme cases than southern counties. But why sweat Lyme disease and CWD when you have wolves to demonize?

Either way, Wisconsin is heading into the 2023 gun deer season with a nation-leading 11,131 confirmed cases of CWD this century. Iowa County remains entrenched in first place all-time with 4,153 cases, followed by Sauk, 1,726; Richland, 1,664; and Dane, 1,589.

And things aren’t getting better. In 2022, 8.7% of all deer tested carried the disease, up from 7.74% in 2021, with basically the same number of tests (17,147 and 17,200). And so far this year, Wisconsin had logged 145 new cases as of Nov. 2, through bowhunting alone. Sauk County has the early lead with 26 cases, followed by Iowa County, 21; Richland,17; Dane, 16; and Columbia, 14.

Through it all, stalwart CWD deniers tell the DNR that “no one” is finding dead deer on their lands. Earlier this year, however, one longtime Iowa County denier said he found two deer carcasses, but shrugged it off as insignificant.

Just two, huh? I contacted him to learn more, but he ignored me, which is his custom. Public records, however, show this guy owns at least 192 acres, or roughly a third of a square mile, 640 acres. If you project his two-deer loss across a full square mile, that’s 6.68 deer skeletons. And if you project 6.68 across Iowa County’s 768 square miles, you have 5,130 dead deer.

Granted, Iowa County isn’t all woods, creek bottoms and other deer habitat, but two unexplained dead deer per 192 acres isn’t trivial. In comparison, Iowa County’s hunters registered 3,650 deer during 2022’s archery and firearms seasons.

That would mean CWD killed more deer (5,130) in Iowa County than did bullets and broadheads (3,650) during the state’s four-month hunting seasons in 2022, by a 58-42 percentage (8,780 total dead deer).

That’s not the only carcass-based calculation to raise that possibility. Consider this February 2023 letter from Don Bates, a retired DNR biologist. Bates wrote:

“I looked at the DNR numbers for deer herd size, hunter harvest, and testing for (CWD)

in six southern Wisconsin counties. The results … should alarm anyone who cares about seeing or hunting white-tailed deer.

“Gun- and bow-hunters in Dane, Iowa, Sauk, Columbia, Richland and Lafayette counties killed 29,340 total deer in fall 2022. Of those hunter-killed deer, 4,780 were tested for CWD, and 1,187 were positives found; a 25% overall infection rate.

“Using the DNR’s 2021 post-hunt population estimates for those counties (2022 estimates were not yet available), 149,000 deer remained on the landscape after all guns and bows left the woods last fall. If one in every four deer has CWD, we’ve had potentially 37,250 deer walking around the woods this year spreading the disease to healthy deer.

“As research shows, all those sick deer will die over the next year to18 months from this brain disease if they’re not first killed by bullets, arrows, cars or predators. In contrast, hunters killed only 29,000 deer in those six counties a year ago (44% of the total).

“Therefore, CWD—not humans, bobcats or wolves—is the biggest predator on this region’s deer.”

Notice the similarities? A retired biologist estimated CWD killed more deer than did hunters by a 56-44 percentage across the region in 2022. His regional calculation was only 2 percentage points lower than the Iowa County CWD denier, who inadvertently estimated CWD outdid hunters 58-42 last year. As the pollsters say, “That’s within the margin of error.”

Feel free to share those findings with your legislative can-kickers, but don’t expect it to soften their stubborn apathy.

Deer carcasses found on southern Wisconsin woodlots and farmlands suggest chronic wasting disease, not hunters, is now the region's biggest deer killer. Inset photo by Doug Duren: A doe, likely stricken by CWD, walks past a trail camera in Richland County. — Patrick Durkin photo

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