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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Past CWD Mistakes will be Tough to Overcome

Many Wisconsinites have been fleeing the truth about chronic wasting disease since its discovery in February 2002, and now find themselves hunched in exhaustion, gasping like pudgy commuters chasing a train that’s cleared the station.

Too bad it took over 5,250 CWD cases and a growing presence in 26 counties to convince them Wisconsin has a chronically worsening problem they can’t ignore away.

Better late than never, I suppose, but if these stubborn science-deniers were expecting praise or sympathy for finally grasping reality, they’ll have to wait. No hugs are forthcoming from folks who viewed or attended CWD conferences, listening sessions and public meetings the past month from Madison to Dodgeville to Wausau.

One such participant at a July 24-25 CWD conference in Madison said the event’s “political element” was embarrassing, and caused lots of frustration and eye-rolling.After all, DNR Secretary Preston Cole told the gathering of Midwest wildlife agencies and conservation groups that their summit was “unprecedented,” and that Wisconsin is leading the way.

His words rang hollow. As several attendees noted later in interviews, everyone present knew Wisconsin’s poor track record on CWD, and that our current state budget includes nothing new to fight it.

Yes, it’s usually worthwhile to assemble experts to discuss pressing issues and let the public listen, take notes, and answer superficial questions on TV. And yes, it’s good that Wisconsin – CWD’s worldwide epicenter – finally wants to team with other states to fight the disease regionally. Unfortunately, the conference delivered nothing its participants couldn’t have shared by email. It certainly inspired no one to charge out the doors, waving a Wisconsin flag and shouting “Forward!”

But if they had, they would have collapsed when the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board met two weeks later in Wausau to discuss a pressing issue: Why do only 12 landfills statewide knowingly accept the bones and scraps of processed deer from hunters, taxidermists and meat processors in counties known to have CWD?

We’ve long known one way to slow CWD’s spread is to remove possibly infected deer from the woods and fields, and their decaying bodies from ditches and roadsides. By burying their remains in landfills with clay-lined pits, there’s little chance CWD-causing prions will seep back into the environment. Two University of Wisconsin-Madison studies said as much over a decade ago. Those studies were led by Joel A. Pedersen (February 2008) and Kurt H. Jacobson (January 2009).

Meanwhile, DNR Board members assumed – probably correctly – that every landfill in the state disposes of deer remains, even if their fine-print policies say they won’t. After all, landfill employee don’t screen every black plastic bag picked up on curbs or emptied from dumpsters. By making it policy to not accept deer parts, landfill operators grant themselves plausible deniability should prions ever be traced to their facilities.

The DNR Board would like to mandate that landfills accept and dispose of deer parts, but they lack that authority. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker passed Act 21 in 2011, stripping the Board of such powers. Afterward, of course, the Legislature and former governor were too busy shirking and shedding other public-trust duties to do something constructive like crafting new deer-carcass procedures for landfills.

Despite those UW studies by Pedersen and Jacobson, some Board members expressed frustration that Wisconsin’s best scientific minds can’t ensure that CWD prions will be contained or rendered harmless in landfills.

The most ironic comments came from vice-chair Greg Kazmierski of Pewaukee, who said he’s discouraged no one has those answers after 17-plus years of CWD. Kaz likes the state’s fledgling program to provide more dumpsters for deer carcasses, and considers it our best hope for removing CWD-infected deer parts from circulation.

“This is probably the No. 1 thing we can do to reduce the spread of CWD, but it sounds like there’s still a lot we don’t know,” Kazmierski said. “How do we not know? If we’re directing more dollars to research, we have to know this.”

Ahem. It’s admirable that Kaz is finally conceding CWD is a problem and that everything won’t be fine if the media and worried hunters would just shut up about it. But Kaz should look in the mirror when asking, “How do we not know?”

Kaz helped spawn the mess now soiling Cole’s office after forging close relationships with southeastern Wisconsin Republicans like Rep. Scott Gunderson, former DNR secretary and state Sen. Cathy Stepp, and former Gov. Scott Walker – who twice appointed Kaz to 6-year terms on the DNR Board.

Kaz and Gundy worked hard in 2005 to scuttle the DNR’s aggressive CWD-control plans by forcing it to abandon earn-a-buck regulations and data-driven sharpshooting efforts. And when the Republican party won the Assembly in November 2006 and Gunderson took over its Natural Resources Committee in 2007, Gundy called CWD spending a boondoggle and slashed its budget.

CWD funding ranged from $4.8 million in 2004 to $5.8 million in 2007. After Gundy took over, his party cut CWD funding by 52% to $2.8 million in 2008 and by 59% to $2.4 million in 2009. After Walker won the governor’s race in 2010 and appointed Kaz and Stepp to their posts, CWD funding averaged $1.14 million annually from 2012 to 2018, basically a quarter of its $4.8 million average from 2004 through 2007.

And if that wasn’t enough, Kaz and Stepp cheered approval when the Legislature banned earn-a-buck in 2011. Then they sat silent in 2015 when Walker helped Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, exterminate the DNR’s science bureau.

If Kazmierski truly wants answers to nagging CWD questions, he’ll publicly admit his many errors of judgment and false assumptions, and lead efforts to rebuild and refund the DNR and UW’s research programs.

We don’t expect such political courage of Kaz, of course, but we can suggest this: Sit down, be quiet, and quit spinning the tuning knobs on instruments you don’t understand.

Now that chronic wasting disease has been detected in white-tailed deer in 26 Wisconsin counties since its discovery in February 2002, some state leaders are realizing they can’t ignore this always-fatal disease. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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