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Science Still AWOL from Wisconsin DNR and its Governing Board

Science remains missing in action as Wisconsin keeps fumbling for a rational response to chronic wasting disease 17.5 years into the struggle, and nearly nine months after Gov. Tony Evers and DNR secretary Preston Cole took office.


Meanwhile, Evers and Cole sit silent and submissive as the Department of Natural Resources’ governing board paralyzes the state’s CWD- and deer-management programs with misinformation and personal beliefs.


The DNR Board doesn’t restrict its follies to deer, of course. At its Sept. 25 meeting in Mishicot, Board Chair Frederick Prehn, Wausau, and vice-chair Greg Kazmierski, Pewaukee, orchestrated an emergency order to close the ruffed grouse season 26 days early on Jan. 5, even though they lack scientific justification to eliminate hunting opportunities.


Kazmierski crafted their excuse. Follow Kaz’s reasoning, kids:


A year ago, the Board closed the 2018-19 grouse season a month early, also without scientific evidence. And next year, the state’s pending ruffed grouse management plan will make the early-January closure permanent. Therefore, Kaz said, the Board must close this year’s season Jan. 5 for “continuity” to avoid confusing hunters.


Excuse me while I blink tears of gratitude. Bless you, Kaz, for protecting us simpletons who can’t keep our closing dates straight.


But Kazmierski was just warming up. After saying the DNR’s 2019 ruffed-grouse drumming count increased 34%, Kazmierski credited the early-January closure for the rebound. (Fact-check: Drumming actually rose 41% statewide this spring, with increases of 48% in the DNR’s Northern region and 35% in the Central region.)


“I’d like to take credit for the fact the drumming count was up because of our action,” Kazmierski said. “I can’t find anyone who can tell me scientifically that that’s not the case.”


Prehn chimed in: “I don’t know how many (grouse) we saved but (where I hunt) it’s more than you think. … Show me the data that that’s not the case. It certainly didn’t (hurt) the situation.”


Groan. Yes, the DNR Board’s two top officers don’t realize science can’t prove a negative.


Which brings us to deer. At the same meeting, Kazmierski presented his “Chronic Wasting Disease Subcommittee Report.” This newly formed “subcommittee” consists of Kazmierski. It momentarily included Fred Clark, but he only contributed a short dissenting view on Page 6, and resigned from the Board after its Mishicot meeting.


The Kazmierski report claims “multiple agendas” are using CWD as an “excuse for deer-population reduction,” and to “move political agendas, seek funding, further anti-hunting agendas, and run deer farmers out of business.” He also claimed the “sensationalizing of these different agendas” has one benefit: “It sells newspapers.”


Kazmierski then continued spewing poorly worded claims. For example: “Many blame the Kroll (June 2012 Deer Trustee Report) team and passive management for the high (CWD) prevalence in the endemic zone. … (But) Minnesota laid out in their resent (sic) response plan passive management once the disease is detected at greater than 5%.”


When contacted Oct. 2, Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor, said there’s nothing “passive” about Minnesota’s plan should the agency declare an area “CWD-endemic.”


Carstensen said the Minnesota DNR would only reduce its most aggressive efforts in specific areas. After all, extensive sharpshooting and mandatory testing are unsustainable indefinitely over large regions. Still, the agency would keep managing specific areas for a younger herd structure through “liberalized harvest opportunities” such as extra gun-hunts, multiple buck tags, either-sex hunting, and unlimited antlerless tags.


Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Southeast and Northcentral CWD management zones this fall require hunters to submit their deer for testing. They can shoot unlimited antlerless deer; and those hunting the Southeast zone can shoot a buck on each of their archery, muzzleloader and firearms licenses. They can also fill buck tags during two three-day hunts the final two weekends of December; and residents and nonresidents can buy unlimited $2.50 management tags.


In contrast, Kazmierski has used the Kroll report to curtail deer hunting opportunities by eliminating either-sex gun-hunts in December, even though bucks are most likely to carry and spread CWD.


When questioned at a press conference Sept. 3 about ineffective management “tools” for endemic areas, Kazmierski claimed Wisconsin focused hunting pressure on bucks “years ago” (2011) by eliminating “earn-a-buck” rules. That law, though unpopular with some, reduced herds by requiring hunters to first shoot a doe or fawn.


“If deer were wearing signs that they’re CWD-positive, this would have an easy solution,” Kazmierski said.


Hmm. Actually, many deer do carry “signs.” They’re called antlers. Across large swaths of Iowa, Sauk and Richland counties, CWD rates for bucks range from 20% to 30% for 1.5-year-old males, and 44% to 56% for males 2.5 years and older. The more bucks we shoot, the greater our odds of killing CWD-infected deer.


Kazmierski also likes claiming that reducing herd sizes won’t affect CWD prevalence, even though deer often exceed 40 per square mile of habitat in Wisconsin’s most infected areas.


Carstensen said Kaz’s claim might work for low deer densities of 10 to 15 per square mile of range, but it “gets muddy” for overpopulated herds. “At 40 to 50 deer per square mile, that’s not a good argument,” she said. “You have more deer dispersing, more deer shedding infectious agents, and more deer interacting everywhere they turn.”


Kazmierski’s Sept. 25 plan also included a directive to eliminate mandatory CWD testing. The DNR caved Oct. 2 by making tests voluntary this fall for five Chippewa Valley townships after the DNR detected one CWD case in Eau Claire County in 2017, and two more in 2018. The agency had been backing a citizens committee’s recommendation for mandatory testing because voluntary tests in 2018 didn’t provide enough cooperation for scientific sampling.


The DNR’s sudden reversal frustrated committee chairman Dave Zielke of Eau Claire, and member Mark Noll of Alma. “There’s nothing scientific about the decision,” Zielke said. “This was just the Board’s preference. They did it without consulting us. They blind-sided us.”


Noll agreed. “You get one good swing at stopping CWD, and now they’ve handcuffed us again while the disease spreads,” he said. “We don’t even know if the three cases they found are the core infection area. Minnesota is doing more to keep CWD out of our area than Wisconsin is. This is damned frustrating.”


Until Evers and Cole fulfill their pledge to restore science to agency policy-making, the DNR Board should work under a banner that reads: “Caution: Don’t Heed the Amateurs.”


The DNR requires such reminders.


The Wisconsin DNR and its governing board keep fumbling for a credible response to chronic wasting disease, which was found in the state’s white-tailed deer herd 17.5 years ago. -- Photo by Cuddeback/NonTypical Inc.

Wisconsin Natural Resources Board vice-chair Greg Kazmierski of Pewaukee. -- Photo by Patrick Durkin

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