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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Partisan Politics Won’t Fix Wisconsin’s CWD Problems

Even the laziest, most partisan, back-row-dwelling lawmakers in Madison and Washington typically find time each year to pass conservation bills.

By taking such minor political risks, lawmakers in both parties can tell constituents they’re still working together on vital matters, and not just hurling spit-wads and puffing blow-darts at each other inside our iconic capitols.

Why, then, haven’t state lawmakers found time to pass a bill by Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, to require all Wisconsin landfills to accept deer carcasses? Cowles’ bill includes a big carrot: It grants landfill operators immunity if any issues arise from deer bones and tissues infected with chronic wasting disease.

Yes, it’s astounding that Wisconsin lets landfill operators decline to handle deer carcasses. There’s no evidence CWD prions — the rogue proteins thought to trigger CWD — can leach through a landfill’s clay liners and contaminate surrounding soils and groundwater. For that matter, we still have no evidence CWD has ever triggered its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Yes, CWD prions might one day sneak “under the fence” in fluke scenarios, but would that be our biggest risk from nearby landfills? No landfill inspects, X-rays or pats down every garbage bag entering its pit, and who knows what forever-toxins or known carcinogens get dumped into driveway waste-carts with diapers, chicken bones and banana peels.

The Legislature’s failure to pass Cowles’ bill is causing hunters in southwestern Wisconsin to pay more to dump deer carcasses responsibly. Tom Hauge of Prairie du Sac and Doug Duren of Cazenovia help coordinate deer-dumpster programs in Sauk and Richland counties, respectively.

The programs combine to provide 12 large dumpsters (20 square yards) at sites where hunters can drop off deer carcasses for free. Duren expects his group to set out seven dumpsters this fall, and to haul away 12 full loads of deer carcasses.

The groups pay local haulers to take each full dumpster to the Vernon County landfill because nearer landfills won’t accept deer carcasses. Because those restrictions create more work for Vernon County, that landfill raised its dumping fees, which haulers pass on to clients like Duren and Hauge.

Therefore, their hauling charges doubled from the past year to about $1,075 per load. The Department of Natural Resources’ “Adopt a Dumpster” program reimburses the citizens groups by evenly splitting the cost of each dumpster up to $1,000, and then covering the remaining cost. After reimbursements, partners end up donating a maximum of $500 per dumpster.

The DNR funds those contributions with $5 earmarks from antlerless deer tags sold in CWD counties, and from federal grants the past two years, including $126,000 this year.

Even so, Hauge said his group must pay $6,000 to $7,000 upfront to rent dumpsters and pay haulers, and then wait for DNR reimbursements. Duren’s cooperators must pony up slightly more in advance. Both put donation boxes alongside the dumpsters, but Duren estimates only 20% of hunters drop off money with their deer bones. Likewise, drop-box donations only cover about 20% of the program’s upfront costs.

“Numbers like those demand a lot of cash for small alliances like ours,” Hauge said. “It puts us into fundraising situations every year. It’s a good project and a great cause, so we’re happy and proud to help, but we keep asking why a program this important to Wisconsin must we rely on private donations every year.”

Duren also said the DNR account that reimburses “Adopt a Dumpster” volunteers was already disbursing more than it was receiving before hauling fees doubled this fall. “Last year that fund started with about $1.38 million and brought in about $480,000, but it paid out about $811,000 and had an ending balance of just over $1.05 million,” he said. “That math is problematic. The Evers administration included money for it in its latest budget, but the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee eliminated it.

“Deer-carcass disposal problems aren’t new, whether it’s landfills or curbside pickup,” Duren continued. “We identified those problems years ago, and they wouldn’t be hard to fix.”

While we’re pointing out obvious needs to shortsighted lawmakers, here’s another suggestion: Invite Wyoming biologist Martin Hicks to the capitol to remind Wisconsin’s legion of CWD-deniers that the problem hasn’t gone away in Western states.

Scientists discovered CWD in a captive mule deer herd in Colorado in 1967. It was first found in wild Colorado deer and elk in the early 1980s. Wyoming detected its first case in deer in 1985, and in elk in 1986. The disease has since spread through Colorado and Wyoming in deer, elk and moose; as well as to 23 other states. Wisconsin’s first CWD cases were from deer shot in 2001.

Hicks, the wildlife management coordinator for Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department in Laramie, recently told the Casper Star-Tribune that CWD has never stopped spreading geographically while increasing in prevalence in that state. Those increases are sometimes sluggish, but they’re always unrelenting.

Hicks said Wyoming has been in “surveillance mode” for CWD over 20 years. That passive approach only created high CWD prevalence rates in the state’s elk and deer herds. “What we learned, at least in southeastern Wyoming, is that doing nothing does not work when it comes to CWD,” Hicks said.

Therefore, Wyoming will work on a new management plan this winter after conceding it waited too long to alter CWD’s course. Its options include reducing artificial feeding to prevent crowding, and adjusting hunting regulations to reduce high-risk herds.

Sound familiar?

That’s a message worth broadcasting from Wisconsin’s most prominent podium. If lawmakers aren’t sure where that might be, point them to the site in our capitol where GOP leaders had Ted Nugent endorse their Sporting Freedom Package on Oct. 13.

After all, are we supposed to believe that ending Wisconsin’s concealed-carry laws, screwing around with the spring turkey season, opening a sandhill crane season, and reheating 10 other mostly trivial ideas is more vital to our deer herds and hunting heritage than CWD?

It’s time lawmakers in both parties quit pretending Wisconsin’s CWD plague and conservation issues have partisan solutions.

CWD continues to spread geographically while increasing in prevalence in Wyoming’s mule deer herds since its discovery there 40 years ago. — Patrick Durkin photo

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