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While watching a committee review Wisconsin’s 15-year plan for chronic wasting disease last week, one wondered if the Department of Natural Resources will ignore the eventual updates for lack of funding and fears they’ll hurt tourism and license sales by merely discussing CWD. When in doubt, bet on the status quo, right?

The Dec. 12 review in Madison, the third such meeting the past seven weeks for the 20-member panel, reminded observers once again of Wisconsin’s mostly futile efforts to alter the disease’s spread or learn much about it. For example, we’re nearly 15 years into the CWD era, and the DNR still has no action plan for handling discoveries outside southern Wisconsin’s endemic area.

That’s not a gotcha idea. The current CWD plan, crafted by a previous citizens committee in 2010, specified one. It was also a vital part of “deer czar” James Kroll’s 2013 Deer Trustee Report. Kroll’s plan said the DNR must:

  • Deploy a health check/surveillance team immediately when verifying CWD outside the disease’s current range.
  • Use local observers and volunteers to find and report sick or dead deer.
  • Once determining a geographic area for the discovery, employ focused, targeted shooting/ sampling to scientifically determine the disease’s extent.

That hasn’t happened, of course, even after CWD was discovered in wild deer in Portage County in 2013, after two CWD-infected deer escaped a game farm in Eau Claire County in 2015, after two CWD-infected deer were identified in an Oneida County game farm in January, and after a CWD-infected deer was verified on an Oconto County game farm in late September.

Kroll recently wrote, “Unfortunately, the WDNR has yet to organize the response teams recommended by the DTR.”

The DNR also has no systematic process to collect samples from hunter-killed deer to ensure it accurately and uniformly assesses CWD’s prevalence wherever it’s found. Instead, hunters decide whether to get their deer tested. Without scientifically designed sampling, it’s difficult to reliably assess disease probabilities.

Nor does the agency follow a comprehensive monitoring plan to check for CWD’s spread or prevalence statewide. Wisconsin hasn’t conducted a comprehensive statewide survey since testing 19,881 deer in 2002 outside its southern deer zone.

In contrast, the agency sampled 27,190 deer from 2011-2015, of which 77.5 percent (21,083) came from the DNR’s southern farmland zone — basically, CWD’s endemic area. That means the DNR tested only 6,107 deer outside the main disease area the past five years. Therefore, no one should claim CWD hasn’t spread outside the endemic area. Not testing for it doesn’t prove it’s not there.

Let’s also concede many hunters won’t provide samples voluntarily. As the committee heard often Monday, hunters in areas that allow baiting and feeding often decline to submit a possibly diseased deer, fearing a positive result will trigger a baiting/feeding ban.

Attitudes like that make Paul McGraw, state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, suggest it’s time to assume CWD could be anywhere in Wisconsin, and consider managing for that possibility statewide, not by county.

“Let’s look at some basic mitigating factors we would enact statewide, such as biosecurity, baiting bans, maybe carcass- movement controls, and other things we agree are good disease-control programs, whether it’s found in the wild or not,” McGraw said.

Mike Riggle, a Medford veterinarian who represents the Wisconsin Conservation Congress on the committee; and Tony Grabski of Blue Mounds, who represents the Sporting Heritage Council, agreed it’s time to consider a statewide baiting/feeding ban. They said Wisconsin is now a confused patchwork of bait bans that affect 43 of 72 counties.

“Unfortunately, we already have two generations of hunters who know nothing except baiting,” Riggle said. “The only thing they know is to carry corn into the woods, throw it out and then sit and look at it all season. If we let this continue for another generation, we’ll have a majority of hunters who know nothing different. That’s a sad commentary on hunting. It’s time to enact regulations that proactively deal with disease to reduce its threat and spread; not just CWD, but all wildlife diseases, such as TB (tuberculosis).”

Several committee members went further, reminding each other that CWD is now present in all of Wisconsin’s neighboring states. During the meeting’s public comment period, former DNR wildlife director Tom Hauge said CWD requires national attention.

“No individual state can fund the work that needs to be done,” Hauge said. “It will take a national focus and research.”

The committee also expressed a need for more effective communication with the public. Mitch King, who represents the Archery Trade Association on the committee, said: “People don’t know the consequences of not dealing with this disease. The consequences of inaction are very real.”

More research. More sampling. More testing. More data. More findings. More educating and informing. And more comprehensive planning with Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.

In other words: More funding is needed. Trouble is, some folks — important and self-important — ridicule public spending on CWD, even though they fear it could be reducing license sales and hurting tourism by scaring off hunters.

But they aren’t studying those possibilities, either.

And again this fall, Gov. Scott Walker and DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp recorded a peppy “Let’s go deer hunting!” publicservice ad, but never mentioned CWD nor encouraged hunters to get their deer tested.

Sigh. Tell me something: In order of statewide public interest/ importance, rank the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks, Milwaukee Brewers and deer hunting. I’ll bet 95 percent of Wisconsin ranks them this way: 1, Packers; 2, deer hunting; 3, Brewers; 4, Bucks.

If Wisconsin can’t support serious money to study and manage CWD and its impacts on our most popular wildlife species, and our most lucrative license-revenue source, how do we justify $681 million in taxpayer funding for Miller Park through 2010, $334 million in taxpayer funding for Lambeau’s renovation through 2010, and $250 million in public funding for a new playhouse for the Bucks?

Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.

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