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  • Patrick Durkin

Wisconsin Hunters Receive Little Help Controlling CWD

Updated: Nov 19

A Department of Natural Resources email arrived Friday the 13th with news more heartbreaking than surprising: The 3-year-old buck I killed Nov. 2 in southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless Area tested positive for chronic wasting disease.


I shared the bad news with my cousins, Mike and Peggy Durkin, whose family owns the farm I’ve long hunted in northeastern Richland County.


My buck was the farm’s first confirmed CWD-positive deer, but surely not its first deer to carry the always-fatal disease. Black dots signifying CWD cases have been filling the surrounding 1-square-mile blocks on DNR maps increasingly faster the past decade.


Some perspective: From 2002 to 2010 in Richland County, the DNR tested 7,837 deer and confirmed only 21 CWD cases (0.26%). In fact, from 2002 to 2008, the DNR found only three cases in 6,244 tests. But since 2010, the DNR has tested 6,562 deer and confirmed 747 cases (11.4%). That’s 250 times more cases than was found those first seven years, folks.


My buck, of course, was one of those 747 cases, and the problem didn't vanish after election day. As of Nov. 19, Wisconsin bowhunters had registered 448 deer that tested positive for CWD. Of that total, 94 (21%) came from Richland County. Therefore, when I opened my basement freezer after lunch Nov. 13, I filled two clear garbage bags with the buck’s vacuum-sealed venison. To ensure the venison gets buried in a landfill, I hauled it to the county’s garbage facility and dropped it into a dumpster.


Clunk.


If I were a hermit, maybe I would have eaten it. After all, CWD has never been documented in humans, and I’m nearly 65. At my age I have more to fear from COVID-19 and other scourges.


But I’m also a husband, father and grandfather who considers it reckless, even stupid, to ignore impartial advice from the World Health Organization, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They all advise not eating or sharing meat from CWD-positive deer.


I’ve since downloaded my replacement buck tag, which is valid for gun-hunting or bowhunting. I like that. To reduce CWD’s spread, we must target bucks, not just does. That matters to Richland County hunters who see ourselves as a thin orange and camo line between CWD and the counties north and west. CWD is entrenched to our east and south, but given enough opportunity and copper bullets, we hope to slow its spread elsewhere.


Maybe that’s why I marvel at the malignant indifference and incompetence of Gov. Scott Walker’s appointments to the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board. Their neglect the past decade continues to cripple hunters’ efforts to control CWD.


Hunters serving on County Deer Advisory Committees from Richland County to Eau Claire County have repeatedly asked this NRB to give hunters better “tools” for battling CWD. But NRB chair Fred Prehn and vice chair Greg Kazmierski arrogantly dismiss them.


And yet Prehn and Kazmierski found time this summer to violate the state’s open-meeting laws while meddling with relatively trivial antlerless-deer quotas for 11 counties across the Northern forest. You might recall their amateurish imitations of deer biologists triggered an open-meetings complaint by former NRB member Dave Clausen, who filed it with Dane County’s district attorney.


NRB members cannot ignore away CWD’s threat to Wisconsin’s $1 billion-plus annual deer hunting recreation, and the DNR’s $22 million in annual deer-hunting license revenues. It’s time the NRB reverse the harm Kazmierski inflicted the past decade. With their enabling help, Kazmierski …

— Ended mid-October’s four-day antlerless gun-hunts after 2011;

— Encouraged the Legislature and Gov. Walker to outlaw earn-a-buck regulations in 2011;

— Eliminated the holiday deer season’s either-sex option after 2013;

— Ignored public input when implementing his version of the Deer Trustee Report plan in 2014;

— Sat idle and silent as the Legislature and Gov. Walker eliminated deer carcass tags in 2017;

— Ignored the Deer Trustee Report’s directive for comprehensive testing around new CWD outbreaks, such as in Adams, Dunn, Oneida, Lincoln, Marathon, Portage, Marquette and Eau Claire counties.


The NRB should also expand December’s four-day antlerless gun-hunts to include either-sex tags in CWD-infected counties, reward hunters with a bonus buck tag for each deer they get tested, and give hunters an either-sex tag if they kill a doe or fawn with CWD.


The NRB’s apathy also expresses itself on the DNR’s website, where the agency forces readers to search its digital maze for CWD information. If you call up “dnr.wisconsin.gov,” you’ll find no CWD info on the landing page. You will, though, find updates on fall colors, and information for obtaining park stickers, reserving a DNR speaker, or learning more about the NRB, deer advisory councils, and Conservation Congress.


Sigh.


Wisconsin is home to North America’s worst CWD endemic, and yet the agency tasked with its management acts as if CWD can’t be mentioned in polite society. The DNR’s homepage, however, will help you pinch a poacher, report an environmental spill, or snitch on neighbors who exceed bluegill bag limits.


In fact, you won’t find CWD info if you click the homepage’s “Hunting” tab. Not until you click the “White-Tailed Deer” tab on the “Hunting” page will you find CWD. Even then, you must scroll to the bottom third of the “Deer Hunting” page to find the prize.


Meanwhile, CWD is growing exponentially across Richland County, likely bound for Vernon, Monroe and La Crosse counties. Chances are, by the time CWD reaches Buffalo County, it will have joined forces with the northern advance now taking root in Pepin, Dunn and Eau Claire counties.


That region is susceptible because it offers prime deer habitat, high deer densities, great potential for mature deer, and rich soils that bind tightly with prions, the agent that triggers CWD. Biologists suspect CWD might not become so infectious in the state’s Central Sands region, given that prions don’t bind well to sandy soils and, therefore, might not persist in the environment.


Unfortunately, the DNR and NRB can’t rely on sand to slow or stop CWD. That requires knowledge, an engaged public, and intelligent leadership. Those traits are foreign to Gov. Walkers’ NRB appointees, who reinforce an undeniable reality: The state’s GOP can cut taxes, obstruct science, and suffocate public programs, but it can’t lead people, build innovative programs, or envision Wisconsin’s future.


Can Gov. Tony Evers do better? He must find two responsible adults to replace Prehn and NRB secretary Julie Anderson when they depart the Board on May 1. That would give Evers' NRB appointees a 4-3 majority, nullifying Kazmierski.


Let’s hope Evers’ NRB will have the brains and courage to lead.


Richland County CWD History

CWD CWD Percent CWD CWD Percent

Year Tests Cases Positive Year Tests Cases Positive

2002 636 1 0.16 2012 592 18 3%

2003 1,317 0 0% 2013 227 10 4%

2004 1,691 0 0% 2014 256 13 5%

2005 919 2 0.2% 2015 377 37 10%

2006 1,182 0 0% 2016 470 61 13%

2007 256 0 0% 2017 855 87 10%

2008 243 0 0% 2018 1,393 187 13%

2009 933 7 1% 2019 1,458 246 17%

2010 660 11 2% 2020 327* 79* 24%*

2011 607 9 1.5%

* = As of 11-17-20

Wisconsin’s Richland County has become the state’s battleground for combating chronic wasting disease, but hunters are ill-equipped to fight. — Patrick Durkin photo


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