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Editor's note: At winter's end, DNR Wildlife Director Tom Hauge provided the Natural Resources Board with a one-year retrospective of lessons learned while attempting to contain an outbreak of chronic wasting disease. He thanked dedicated professionals and volunteers working to understand the disease, and he reflected on efforts to map its spread, work with the public to limit or contain the disease, and work with many partners to help people calmly assess the risks this wildlife disease may pose.
Friday, February 28th was the one-year anniversary of the news that chronic wasting disease was present in Wisconsin, and life has been a blur for 12 months since that discovery. I'd like to reflect on how far we've come because it has happened so quickly.
A year ago folks were unsure what we meant by chronic wasting disease (CWD) and now our citizens are among the most educated in the country with regard to this disease. That was accomplished through the efforts of agencies, universities, media and other partners to educate by websites, articles, and spring and fall public meetings. Wisconsin set national attendance records for getting people to come together to discuss and learn about the disease.
Also for the first time ever, a Wisconsin governor went to Washington to address a congressional committee on a wildlife disease issue. And a captive wildlife bill that languished in legislative committees for years was finally passed. It is an important tool for protecting the health of Wisconsin wildlife and domestic cattle. Further, our partners in the state Department of Agriculture have passed stronger health testing rules for captive cervids that will help us down the road.
Through quick state and federal investment, Wisconsin now has an up-to-date laboratory that will help us determine how susceptible Wisconsin whitetails are to the disease. In less than a year, we went from being a state with no capacity to analyze for CWD to a program that is analyzing more deer for CWD than any state in the nation.
DNR staff is sharing those test results as rapidly as possible with hunters who submitted those samples and the general public, especially those living in small areas of southwestern Wisconsin where the disease is most prevalent. Our website updates testing results weekly in charts and maps. Our publication "Understanding Chronic Wasting Disease" was widely distributed, and our new newspaper summary "CWD Update" was inserted in community newspapers within the CWD Eradication Zone to continue educational efforts.
Law enforcement programs have conducted a thorough audit of white-tailed deer farms in Wisconsin to establish a baseline of standard practices in that business as we turn over regulation of that industry to the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Our investigations show there is still room for progress. Investigations by DNR wardens summarized in this "Statewide Audit and Inspection of Wisconsin's Captive Whitetail Deer Farms," show that more than 16,000 whitetails are kept on Wisconsin's 639 licensed deer farms. At least 671 deer have escaped from the 550 deer farms investigated. At least 436 of these deer were not recovered. Some 1,222 deer died on deer farms in the last three years. Since testing to determine the cause of death is not mandatory, many game farm operators do not choose to do post-mortem exams.
Special efforts last summer
Wisconsin had four summer hunts that had an excellent safety record. And we answered questions from local, state, national and international media interested in our efforts to contain this disease.
Twelve hundred people stepped forward last fall to collect 40,000 deer heads that were sampled for this disease and put its risks into perspective. Now we also have set up a website for people who want to learn about the disease and check on testing results.
Staff have offered a lot of counsel to other states who want to see if methods that worked here might work for them in understanding the spread and risks of this disease.
We got special appropriations from the legislature and we conducted a risk assessment for placing deer carcasses in landfills. Further, we developed a disposal plan to freeze carcasses until we know a deer's health status before that carcass is incinerated, a strategy we call the "frost and toast" method.
Our agency has taken a science-based approach to investigate disease spread, and we have been very open in sharing those test results quickly. Together with our partners in the hunting community and reporters, we've had success. Many people understand that we needed help from the hunting public to collect deer. We have had great landowner cooperation throughout this effort too. Though we can get caught up in the affairs of the day, we need to reflect and appreciate what has happened and how well both the staff and public have responded. I want to thank my colleagues and other citizens of Wisconsin for these accomplishments.
As we move into current events, an extended hunting season in the CWD Eradication Zone ended January 31st, and in February and March we offered landowners nearly 1,600 permits and harvested at least 566 deer this winter season (final tally 666 deer) in the Eradication Zone. We hunted over bait at approximately 270 controlled bait sites and have taken an additional 300 deer, mostly on private land.
A mild winter provided little time to do helicopter surveys to update our population estimates in the Eradication Zone. We clearly would have benefitted from longer and earlier snow cover for this work.
We have rules in progress for managing CWD in whitetails that included 17 public hearings in March. DNR also published an environmental impact statement on those rules that will be reviewed at the hearings.
We continue to make steady progress in testing the sampled deer and I'm confident we will make our goal of getting results for all of the outstate samples by the end of March.
And for the future?
For those who would better understand the spread of CWD by seeing a picture, we're adding maps to our website that allow the viewer to search for CWD testing results by county, village or deer management unit to pinpoint where we have collected samples and where animals found to carry CWD were taken.
Our wildlife program will continue consulting with out-of-state CWD researchers and will review our program plans with these experts in April. That sampling and analysis will give us a high degree of confidence to define where CWD has been detected and where the disease may have infected as small as one percent of the deer herd. Recall that in the Mount Horeb area, we estimate that slightly less than two percent of the deer herd carries CWD. If any other area of the state has CWD at the same level, we would certainly expect to have detected it with this extensive sampling effort.
The University of Wisconsin and DNR continue to do research to trap and radio-collar deer to track the range of bucks and does in the Eradication Zone. Forty-three deer were collared, though we had hopes of collaring 60 animals for our telemetry studies.
Understanding the consequences of CWD in Wisconsin also means understanding hunters' concerns about it. The Department of Natural Resources contracted with the University of Wisconsin Survey Research Center to gauge how CWD has affected hunters' attitudes and actions about deer hunting. We now have a better idea of why some people chose to hunt or not hunt this last year, how hunters rate the risk of CWD exposure compared to other risks they accept, and attitudes about deer baiting and feeding in different regions of the state. Those results will be available to anyone who wants to understand the changing nature of our hunting culture following this disease outbreak by reading "Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin and the 2002 Hunting Season: Gun Deer Hunters' First Response."
Aims in herd control
Those results give us confidence that people expect the state to continue taking actions to control the spread of CWD in the deer herd. Doing nothing is not acceptable to the Wisconsin populace. They are comfortable with having us do more research. They favor reducing the deer herd. They clearly prefer solutions that expand opportunities for hunters to take deer or claim bounties rather than relying on government sharpshooters to cull the herd.
Clearly in managing our deer herd into the future, we will be proposing options to further reduce the herd size. We know that changing hunting seasons is unpopular and many deer hunters regard the nine-day season as part of their hunting tradition. Even under optimal weather conditions, hunters historically have not reduced the herd sufficiently in a nine-day season. Hunters statewide repeatedly told us during the Deer 2000 meetings that they wanted a predictable, consistent, expanded season that reduces the need for special herd control seasons each year. We want a longer standard season that requires fewer Zone T hunting units, fewer Earn-A-Buck units, and simpler rules for hunters. We know that starting the gun deer season earlier is unpopular with bowhunters and extending the season later is unpopular with snowmobilers, but both groups will have to give a little and compromises will be reached. Maintaining the present nine-day season will simply keep our deer population well over goal.
We need to provide hunters with greater opportunity to harvest deer with the most effective weapon while maintaining special Zone T and Earn-A-Buck provisions for the times and places when we need it. Let's give people more days to hunt. We are more likely to catch rut activity and would avoid some of the conflict with other seasons. This is but one of the changes we will need to make to adapt to this wildlife emergency.
Editor's note: A month after Mr. Hauge's address, the first year of shooting and collecting deer ended quietly on March 31st. Wildlife biologists hope to reduce the deer herd size as much as possible to contain and possibly eliminate the disease. The tally of these hunts follows:
Preliminary tallies show that with all these efforts 9,287 deer were removed by 7,200 hunters from an estimated population of 16,400-17,900 deer in the Eradication Zone – the intensive hunting effort removed an estimated 40 percent of the herd. Taking into account the hunt and other sources of deer mortality, wildlife biologists estimate the current deer herd in the Eradication Zone is between 8,700 to 10,200 animals. Fawns born this spring are expected to bring the population to between 12,000 to 14,000 deer by fall of 2003.
"Looking ahead to this fall, after factoring in expected fawns this spring, we expect the population in the zone will be down about 25 percent from what it was last fall," said DNR Wildlife Ecologist Bill Vander Zouwen. Sharply reducing the deer population in this zone where infected animals have been detected will remain an important goal in Wisconsin's continuing attempts to eradicate this disease.
Editor's note: At its April 2003 meeting, following meetings with nationwide CWD experts and 5 hours of public testimony on CWD regulations, the Natural Resources Board approved further staff recommendations to manage the chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin. Those steps include extending the Eradication Zone from 411 square miles of southwestern Wisconsin to 872 square miles to maintain a goal of eliminating CWD within a 4.5-mile radius of locations where whitetails have tested positive for the disease. Rules also seek to limit deer populations to 10 animals per square mile of deer range within a Herd Reduction (Management) Zone, and continuing a statewide ban on baiting or feeding deer. The recommendations are currently being reviewed by the State Legislature.