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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

State Lawmakers Hear, Follow Bad Advice on Deer, CWD

   When folks say politicians and the Department of Natural Resources “don’t listen to us” about deer, give them a reminder or three, starting with these:


   -- Wild, free-range deer herds in 44 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties (61%) now carry chronic wasting disease, just two decades after most folks had never heard of CWD.


   -- Wisconsin recorded a record-high 9.35% CWD-detection rate from 16,639 samples statewide in 2023.


   -- As of mid-January, the DNR recorded 1,556 CWD cases for 2023. With bad luck, we’ll pass the record 1,578 cases from 2020, when hunters provided far more samples (18,917) for an 8.34% detection rate.


   -- According to longtime CWD researcher Michael D. Samuel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, CWD is spreading about 3.1 miles annually as it infects more yearlings and they disperse from their birth range.


   Why is all that happening, and how does it relate to lawmakers? Maybe look in the mirror. Lawmakers were likely listening to you as they legislated deer-management chaos the past 20 years from Madison’s capitol. Consider:


   -- In 2003, led by Rep. Scott Gunderson, lawmakers killed the DNR’s statewide baiting ban.


   -- In 2011, led by then state senator and now U.S. Congressman Tom Tiffany, lawmakers banned early-season gun-hunts and earn-a-buck regulations. They did that despite the programs’ effectiveness in controlling deer numbers and, just possibly, disease spread. Just as bad, they offered nothing to replace either management tool.


   -- In 2014, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a woman with no hunting, formal education or scientific background, announced a “new age of deer hunting.” Stepp’s program formalized the “passive approach” to CWD management, which began with Gunderson-led budget cuts to CWD programs in 2007. The do-nothing tactic was also endorsed in 2012 by “deer czar” James Kroll of Texas, who insisted CWD peaks at 2% infection rates.


   -- In 2015, led once more by Tiffany, lawmakers abolished the DNR’s wildlife research bureau and slashed its information-and-education bureau. Imagine the idiocy: First, they banned research into Wisconsin’s natural resources by the agency charged with managing them. Then they pinched off public information about the agency’s efforts to manage our resources.


   The common problem: Politicians listen too much to emotional pleas and phony solutions. That’s also why several Northwoods lawmakers are now pushing a four-year doe-hunting ban, even though the region’s deer face far larger, longer-term habitat challenges than regulated hunting or wolf predation.


   Lawmakers should have listened in 2002 to wildlife-disease experts at the DNR, the UW System, and the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center when the DNR first found CWD near Mount Horeb. Instead, they listened to quacks and amateurs, making Wisconsinites mere spectators to the world’s worst CWD outbreak.


   And so here we are 22 years later, with politicians fretting about wolves rather than a killer disease infecting Wisconsin’s best deer range. If they cared about reality, they would reinstate carcass tags and on-site tagging requirements for deer hunting, and tell the DNR to …


   -- Impose mandatory testing to assess CWD’s prevalence when it appears in new areas, such as Jackson County, which recorded its first case in November and its second in December.


   -- Allow either-sex deer hunting during December’s gun-hunts in CWD zones, given that bucks are roughly twice as likely as does to carry and spread the disease.


   -- Design science-driven CWD monitoring, and mandate in-person deer registration/sample collection at designated sites during gun season’s opening weekend.


   But politicians won’t act responsibly unless you vote responsibly. That doesn’t necessarily mean opposing them. It means complaining responsibly, telling them what actually matters, and holding them accountable. Help drown out the nonsense. Make science and common-sense welcome—and demanded—in the state capitol.


   One man who keeps trying is Cazenovia’s Doug Duren, 65, a landowner in Richland County, and creator of the state’s deer-dumpster program. Duren oversees his family’s 400 acres and 200 acres of neighboring land. He’s long required every deer shot on those lands to be tested for CWD.


   Richland County had only one CWD case in 2002 and 13 cases in 2014 but in 2023 led the state with 380 cases from 1,258 samples (30%). CWD didn’t appear on Duren’s land until a 2-year-old buck tested positive in 2017. Disease rates on his lands then stayed in the single digits before jumping to 12% in 2020 and increasing by 4 to 5 percentage points annually since.


   Of the 47 deer shot on Duren’s lands in 2023, 14 (29.8%) carried CWD. The kill totaled 28 does, of which six (21.4%) had CWD; 13 bucks, of which seven (53.8%) had CWD, and six fawns, of which one (16.1%) had CWD.


   Duren welcomes hunters onto his lands regularly, including 30 in 2023. Besides the 47 deer killed in 2023, Duren’s pals shot 38 in 2022, 40 in 2021, 30 in 2020, and 29 in 2019.


   Even so, Duren thinks hunters across his region aren’t shooting enough deer to prevent CWD’s spread. Overall CWD prevalence in his township section is 36.5%, and he’s not far south from Vernon County.


   He blames lawmakers, for the most part, saying they’ve blocked science-driven deer and CWD management. “Data like mine are interesting, but what we do with that data matters more,” Duren said. “Wisconsin is doing little or nothing with its CWD data. It’s just watching and measuring the herd’s misery.”


   He also notes the rich deer habitat on his land is much the same across the Driftless Area, stretching northward to fabled Buffalo County, which found seven CWD-infected deer the past two years through voluntary testing. Since finding CWD in 2002, Wisconsin researchers have learned it spreads best in areas with vast woodlots and unfragmented deer habitat.


   According to Professor Samuel, they’ve also learned CWD takes 15 to 20 years in Wisconsin to reach its leveling-off stage, which is about 50% in bucks and 40% in females. At those levels, CWD reduces the herd’s size and its age structure, i.e., younger deer and smaller antlers. If so, we can predict hard CWD times for Buffalo County by the late 2030s.


   Lawmakers can keep ignoring those numbers and the growing science on CWD, but willful ignorance hasn’t worked yet to halt CWD.

Leah (Durkin) McCoy shot this 2½-year-old doe in Richland County, where 30% of deer tested in 2023 had CWD. Tests showed this doe was one of them. — Patrick Durkin photo

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