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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Governor’s Gaffe an Opportunity to Lead CWD Fight

Anyone hoping Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers would decisively end Gov. Scott Walker’s “three wise monkeys” management plan for chronic wasting disease shook their heads in stunned disbelief last week when learning CWD wasn’t even footnoted in Evers’ first budget.

Granted, Evers never donned blaze orange to fake interest in deer hunting like his predecessor did. Still, Evers and Preston Cole, his choice to lead the Department of Natural Resources, know enough science to realize Walker’s “See no CWD, hear no CWD, speak no CWD” approach turned a problem into a plague this decade.

It’s not as if Evers’ advisers ignored CWD between election day Nov. 6 and his budget address Feb. 28. Evers named a panel of natural-resources advisers in December that included Tom Hauge, the former DNR wildlife-management bureau chief; and Dave Clausen and Christine Thomas, former Natural Resources Board chairs. Another adviser, Fred Clark, became Evers’ first NRB appointee Feb. 27.

Surely someone told Evers the DNR confirmed a record-shattering 1,049 CWD cases the past year, a 6.2 percent infection rate for the 17,009 deer that hunters voluntarily submitted. A year earlier it confirmed 602 CWD cases from 9,901 samples, a 6.1 percent infection rate.

You’d think an adviser said: “Man, Tony. The DNR tested 7,108 more deer in 2018 than in 2017, a 72 percent increase, and it still documented a higher infection rate. You’re a science teacher. Those are grim numbers, right?”

Evers’ budget blunder also means he offered no money to shoot off the herds in 10 CWD-infected deer farms in Wisconsin. Nor did he offer legislation to forbid these operations from moving live animals anywhere ever again.

This always-fatal disease has now been found in wild deer in 26 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including Marquette County’s first case two weeks ago. For perspective, in 2011, Walker’s first year in office, the DNR confirmed CWD in wild deer in nine counties, and found it in 239 of 5,310 samples, a 4.5 percent infection rate.

In fact, during Walker’s eight deer seasons in office, the DNR found 70 percent (3,665) of the state’s 5,235 CWD cases in wild deer. We also note that Gov. Jim Doyle, Walker’s predecessor, wasn’t CWD’s sworn enemy, either. Doyle didn’t veto a Republican law that restored deer baiting and feeding in 2003. He also didn’t fight GOP lawmakers in 2005 when they forced the DNR to end its sharpshooting work and aggressive herd-reduction efforts. And Doyle didn’t even whimper in 2007 when GOP lawmakers slashed the DNR’s CWD funding.

But Doyle and Walker are history, and Evers inherits their fiasco. And make no mistake: Folks elsewhere know Wisconsin’s passive approach to CWD flopped. When wildlife agencies elsewhere warn hunters about CWD, they say, “We don’t want (insert state here) to be the next Wisconsin!”

Evers must use his pulpit to rally hunters and hunting groups, researchers and universities, and fellow governors and wildlife agencies in Iowa and the Great Lakes states. Every neighboring state now has CWD, so it’s too late for them to build a wall around Wisconsin and make us pay for it.

Evers can start his rally by consulting Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Realizing CWD isn’t just a deer problem or a hunting issue, Walz announced Feb. 15 that he’s devoting $4.57 million in general tax revenues to CWD work the next two years. He also called for $1.1 million annually thereafter for surveillance and detection work during hunting seasons; and $208,000 in 2020 and $529,000 starting in 2021 for Minnesota’s Board of Animal Health to monitor private deer farms.

Wisconsin has never used general-purpose funds for CWD work. Hunters’ fees have borne that burden, as meager as it’s been, the past 18 years.

Evers should also put DNR and UW sociologists to work assessing how CWD affects public attitudes and beliefs. Minnesota, for example, lost 5 percent of its hunters statewide the past three years, but saw hunter numbers plunge 12 percent the past two years in CWD areas.

Minnesota also forbids deer baiting, and its DNR can shut down deer feeding as needed. It also gathers CWD data more scientifically than Wisconsin’s DNR. When CWD pops up unexpectedly somewhere, the Minnesota DNR draws a standard 10-mile circle around the site, and systematically shoots deer to assess CWD prevalence. It also makes testing mandatory in designated areas, and forbids carcass movements from the zone until test results come back.

In contrast, Wisconsin ignores its own monitoring protocols and merely asks people to report sick deer, and voluntarily submit car-kills, and deer shot during urban or crop-damage hunts.

Pfft. It’s time for leadership. Evers and Cole should car-pool to Marquette County this month to rally residents’ help in assessing CWD’s presence around their first case. And they should invite news-folks to cover the meeting to show Wisconsin has a governor who cares about CWD’s impact on deer, hunters and the state’s economy.

Evers and Cole should also rally local chapters of Whitetails Unlimited and the Quality Deer Management Association to sponsor, set up and monitor self-serve kiosks and dumpsters for every county in the state. As Doug Duren and other volunteers showed in Richland County last fall, hunters like convenient places to drop off deer bones and samples for CWD testing.

From the six dumpsters Duren helped provide, volunteers collected 39 tons of deer bones and scraps at costs averaging $4.50 to $5.50 per deer. Figuring 55 pounds per boned-out deer, that’s 1,400 carcasses. And figuring average infection rates of 16 percent in Sauk and Richland counties, Duren’s group removed over 220 CWD-positive deer from the landscape.

Speaking of garbage, Evers and Cole should work with legislators to require all waste-collection companies to pick up deer bones, and all landfills to accept them. And while they’re at it, they should visit taxidermists and deer processors to ensure counties place CWD kiosks and dumpsters within convenient reach of these vital businesses.

Science might not know how to stop CWD, but folks like Duren know this: The more CWD prions we remove from the landscape, the slower the disease spreads, and more time scientists have to solve it.

Likewise, the faster Gov. Evers owns CWD’s challenges, the sooner voters will forgive his mind-numbing budget gaffe.

Recent Wisconsin CWD Cases

Cases Total Infection

Year Verified Samples Rate

2009 179 7,165 2.5%

2010 219 7,440 2.9%

2011 239 5,310 4.5%

2012 339 6,589 5.1%

2013 357 6,664 5.3%

2014 331 5,467 6.0%

2015 300 3,145 9.5%

2016 448 6,135 7.3%

2017 602 9,901 6.1%

2018 1,049 17,009 6.2%

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers needs to work with hunters, communities and other states to help protect white-tailed deer from chronic wasting disease. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Valentine)

Map created by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture & Consumer Protection

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