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Passing the buck: Wisconsin is doing little to stop chronic wasting disease

Credit:Pierre-Paul Pariseau

On the eve of Wisconsin's annual gun deer hunt, so rich in tradition and so important to our self-definition and economy, a disease that threatens that institution quietly spreads like an oil slick. And we are doing nothing about it.

Chronic wasting disease was first found in Wisconsin deer just west of Madison a decade ago. Today, according to Department of Natural Resources wildlife experts, the disease infects 20% of adult bucks at its epicenter in Iowa County, and it is moving out from there at the rate of about two miles per year.

The story of how the disease traveled to Wisconsin and the state's current policy of doing little to fight it is an intriguing tale of entrenched tradition, money and the politicization of the state's conservation infrastructure.

The story leads us in and out of the great state of Texas.

Why I hunt

But before we get to the Lone Star State let's take a trip to the rolling hills of Richland County. In 1968 Bud Jordahl, a late and beloved professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin, bought an eroded farm near Rockbridge. Over the years he nursed it back to health in a way that was not unlike the work done on a similar property an hour's drive away by its owner Aldo Leopold.

Today, the deer camp established by Bud and his brother 40 years ago continues with a new generation led by his son and my good friend Jordy Jordahl.

Every Friday before Thanksgiving a half dozen of us filter into the farmhouse throughout the afternoon and evening. We have a beer and plan for the opening day of gun deer season the following morning.

At 4 a.m. I awake to the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen. At 4:30 Jordy shouts down to the crew in the lower level of the farmhouse, just as his dad did for decades, "Daylight in the swamp, boys!"

We wander upstairs to fill our thermoses and to check the temperature. (Colder is better.) Then we pull on our heavy blaze-orange coats and head off in the dark to our deer stands.

I arrive at my stand before sunup, climb in, load my rifle and wait for sunrise and the official "shooting time." When it arrives I start to hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance as hunters who have been watching deer since the first glow of light are now free to shoot at them.

After a full day in the woods and fields, the evening is filled with venison sausage, sharp Wisconsin cheddar, steaks, potatoes and the ancient and indecipherable German card game Sheepshead. The conversation swirls around what we saw out in the woods. Sometimes deer hang on the tall rack outside, and sometimes it's vacant.

I don't care too much. I love everything about deer hunting, least of all the killing. I will shoot a deer if I have a clean chance, and my best shot was from 225 yards across a field to dispatch an eight-point buck. But most years I never pull the trigger, and I don't feel any less fulfilled for the lack of a kill.

"I love seeing deer," says Jordy, who has seldom gone a year without taking at least one deer from his farm. "Seeing deer and seeing a buck is part of the hunt but not the whole hunt. Getting together with my friends and spending time in the woods and at the farmhouse are more important to me than getting a deer."

But for some hunters it's a competition for a trophy, and anything less than a videogame experience will be a disappointment or, in deer-rich Wisconsin, a violation of their birthright. And that's a problem because less than 40% of the more than 600,000 hunters who will take to the woods this weekend will get a deer over the nine-day gun deer season. Those who go out there only to shoot a deer will be frustrated and angry, often not at their own lack of skill or luck, but at the Department of Natural Resources.

Complaining about the DNR is a long tradition among Wisconsin hunters, especially when it comes to the most effective means of controlling the population: shooting does. In the 1940s, hunters (as well as deer protectors) severely chastised Aldo Leopold. Then a member of the old Conservation Commission, the predecessor to today's DNR, he advocated the hunting of does as a means of managing the population. Traditionally hunters took only bucks. But in 1947, Leopold could not convince even one of his fellow commissioners to second a motion to allow the shooting of does.

And today there is still a lingering "save the women and children" aspect to deer hunting. Even in my own camp of enlightened hunters, we talk about the big bucks we saw that day, though there has been a longstanding rule at the Jordahl camp that any hunter who shoots a buck must follow up by taking a doe.

CWD comes to Wisconsin

Chronic wasting disease affects the brain of a deer the way mad cow disease hits cattle. It is progressive and always fatal, creating microscopic holes in brain tissue. CWD is accompanied by weight loss and behavioral changes such as listlessness, lowering of the head and repetitive walking in set patterns. There is no evidence at this point that it can be transferred to humans.

CWD is caused by a prion, an abnormal form of protein. How Wisconsin deer were initially infected with the prion is uncertain. A good question is how the prion found its way to south central Wisconsin when it had been no closer than the Rocky Mountains previously.

Knowledgeable people I talked with offered three possible explanations. The prion may have arrived here with a deer brought into the state from the west for breeding at a deer farm. It may have traveled by way of a deer from the west that was released directly into the wild by hunters looking to grow bigger bucks. Or it may have originated from deer carcasses that were discarded after experiments at the University of Wisconsin.

George Meyer, former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, says there's no "smoking gun" to prove any one theory correct. "The one thing I'm sure about is that a deer didn't walk from Colorado to Wisconsin," he says. "It came here on some wheeled vehicle. There's very little doubt in my mind that it came from a game farm."

Meyer is a lawyer by training, but his view is backed up by biologists I talked with, some of whom refused to be identified because they feared retribution for their candor.

Blogger Dan Schmidt, who edits the widely respected Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, agrees with Meyer. "[Deer farms] have densities [in their enclosed areas] of up to 400 deer per square mile. A lot of those guys are cutting open the fence and kicking those deer out of there. And, guess what, now you just infected the area around you."

Deer farming is a big business in Wisconsin, though not nearly as dominant as it is in Texas. A trade group, Whitetails of Wisconsin, says on its website: "Our mission is to promote Wisconsin's whitetail deer farmers and the specialty livestock industry. Whitetails of Wisconsin is very active in lobbying efforts with the state legislative and government departments."

Whitetails of Wisconsin is currently represented by lobbyist Gary Goyke. Come January, former Republican state Sen. Bob Welch will take the helm. Goyke says he's never heard of deer farmers allowing their animals to escape into the open country.

"If you open your pens, you might as well be opening your wallets," Goyke says. Most of the state's 400 whitetail deer farms are in business to breed animals as genetic stock, while only about 40 or 50 are open for hunting. And the breeding bucks are valuable, worth thousands of dollars.

DNR spokesman Bill Cosh says the department's official position is that it cannot be proven how CWD got to Wisconsin.

Controversial deer czar

James Kroll is widely known in deer-hunting circles as Dr. Deer. The 65-year-old biologist is the director of the Forestry Resources Institute of Texas at Stephen F. Austin State University. He was hired by Gov. Scott Walker's Department of Administration to be Wisconsin's "deer trustee," widely referred to as "the deer czar."

Kroll and his assistants were paid $125,000 to evaluate the way the state manages deer. It was about fulfilling a Walker campaign promise to calm cranky hunters upset with programs that made them shoot a doe before they could "earn" a buck. They were also upset with the plethora of special seasons that departed from the long Wisconsin tradition of the nine-day gun deer hunt starting on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and ending on the Sunday after it.

From the start, Kroll's selection was controversial. Schmidt of Deer & Deer Hunting says that Wisconsin has the "best deer biologists in the nation, hands down." So he's perplexed about why the state went outside for help. Even if it felt that it had to, he certainly would not have looked in Texas. Schmidt ticks off respected biologists in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri.

"I don't think [Kroll] was the right choice. He hasn't [managed deer] on a statewide level, and he hasn't managed deer in the Midwest."

Kroll himself isn't sure why he got the gig. "It came as pretty much of a surprise that I was asked to do this. To be honest with you, I don't know [why I got the job]," he says in an interview from his office in Texas.

Google James Kroll and the first thing that pops up is a reference to a 2002 Texas Monthly Magazine article in which he is quoted as saying, "Game management is the last bastion of communism." The article goes on to quote Kroll as saying that people who call for more public lands in Texas are "cocktail conservationists" pining for socialism.

Schmidt says that Kroll's background in Texas colors his view of hunting because so much land in Texas is privately held, and enclosed hunting preserves are more common than they are here.

When I asked Kroll about the quotes regarding communism he said, "I don't even bother to apologize for that. I'm all for providing public hunting opportunities for folks. The problem is that they're usually not high-quality opportunities."

A passive approach to disease

Kroll's claim comports with the general unhappiness of Wisconsin deer hunters, even though we take on average about 300,000 deer each year now compared to only about 70,000 when Bud Jordahl bought his farm in 1968.

Kroll said that he was quoted out of context and that if I went back and read the complete Texas Monthly piece, I'd see it in its proper light.

So I did. The article by writer Joe Nick Patoski identifies Kroll as "the leading light in the field of private deer management. His belief is so absolute that some detractors refer to him as Dr. Dough, implying that his eye is on the bottom line more than on the natural world."

The Texas Monthly article's context doesn't do much to take the sting out of Kroll's comments, but it is educational in other ways. Patoski, who actually concludes by agreeing with Kroll that high-fence deer management is good for Texas' ecosystem and farm economy, outlines two common criticisms of the practice.

The first is that it is unethical because it isn't "fair chase." Trophy hunters, mostly wealthy, fly in from all over, pay a fee to hunt on the land, and then are led to a blind near deer bait. When a deer inevitably comes for the bait, they shoot it. They can even pick the deer they want to shoot from a catalog, and they'll pay as much as $10,000 in bonuses based on the size of the antlers on the deer unlucky enough to wander into their gun sights.

The second concern with high-fence deer preserves is that they are breeding grounds for disease, and Patoski specifically mentions chronic wasting disease. He quotes Scot Williamson, a former director of Texas' big-game programs, "Anytime you put white-tailed deer in a confined area where their numbers are concentrated, you run a very high risk that disease will break out."

Schmidt argues that Kroll's background in high-fence Texas deer hunting leads him to naturally downplay diseases like chronic wasting disease, which may account for the passive response to it recommended in Kroll's report (see the cover, executive summary, and findings and recommendations). In fact, Kroll's report, issued earlier this year, advises the state to simply monitor the spread of the disease but to take no affirmative actions to slow or reverse its spread.

The DNR's Cosh says the matter is not necessarily closed. "The Natural Resources Board requested at their last meeting that we come back to the board in early 2013 to revisit the current CWD Management Plan."

Lack of scientific rigor

At the root of the complacent response to chronic wasting disease is the idea that, as James Kroll claims, the first strategy of eradication "just didn't work." But was it given a real chance?

When the discovery of the disease was first announced in the spring of 2002, as the result of testing done from the previous fall's hunt, DNR officials developed a plan to deal with it. They would use sharpshooters and special hunts to dramatically reduce deer populations around Mount Horeb, where the disease was discovered. They had little hope of actually ending the disease, but they thought they could substantially contain it and slow its spread.

DNR officials and UW biologists I spoke with said that the strategy of intense hunting to knock down high deer densities near the disease epicenter was the best strategy available, but that it was poorly communicated to the hunting public. Everyone I spoke with lamented the use of the word "eradication."

"People got the idea that we were trying to eradicate the deer herd and not the disease," says Scott Hassett, former secretary of the DNR. It was Hassett, serving from 2003 to 2009, who bore the brunt of the backlash to the eradication plan.

Tim Van Deelen was one of the architects of that strategy and, in fact, was trained as a sharpshooter to help cull the herd that spring. At the time Van Deelen was a deer biologist working for the DNR in Rhinelander. Today he is an associate professor in the department of forest and wildlife ecology at the UW-Madison.

Van Deelen was skeptical of Kroll's selection as deer trustee, agreeing with Schmidt that he didn't have the academic credentials or understanding of Wisconsin that many other candidates had. Van Deelen says that the lack of scientific rigor found its way into the report.

What he finds particularly troublesome is the claim in the Kroll report that the prevalence of the disease is not increasing. He cites an authoritative article published in the Ecological Society of America journal by Dennis Heisey, one of the top experts in biostatistics and wildlife science in the world. The report indicates that the number of cases is up and that the disease has spread west, almost to the Mississippi River. Yet that study is absent from the Kroll report.

On the other hand, Van Deelen, like the others I talked with, wanted to be fair to Kroll. He cites the "admonition" at the end of Kroll's report, which points out the dangers of ever-higher deer populations.

And no one I spoke with had an answer for what we might do to stem the growth of the disease. Van Deelen suggests that some targeted herd reduction in limited hotspots might still be a partial answer.

"We need a game changer in terms of the science or in terms of the public attitudes about CWD, and [right now] I just don't see it," Van Deelen says. "We're at loggerheads about this, and the disease is continuing to march across the landscape and increase in prevalence."

Environmental crime of the century

Chronic wasting disease is inhumane to deer and damaging to Wisconsin's deer-hunting economy. It could, ultimately, lead to a crash in deer numbers. It was almost certainly carried here by accident. But if it was carried in a deer that had been illegally transported or released in our state, that might just be Wisconsin's environmental crime of the century. It would be not unlike carelessly starting a fire that caused massive destruction. So why doesn't anybody seem to care?

The average Wisconsin deer hunter has CWD fatigue. He just doesn't want to think about it, and he certainly doesn't want to be told to hunt when he doesn't want to and to shoot more does.

The high-fence deer breeding and hunting industry doesn't want further discussion of the origins of the disease because so many point to the industry as a possible source. And all the businesses and landowners who depend on the $2 billion annual Wisconsin deer hunts have no interest at all in tainting the image of the hunt for their customers.

Policymakers, eager to please both hunters and the industry, see no point in upsetting that apple cart. And in the face of hostility from their political bosses, biologists who know better and would like to say more fear for their jobs.

So chronic wasting disease just steadily grows on the Wisconsin landscape. There may come a day when such a high proportion of deer are infected that the deer population crashes, and with it an entire industry and a cherished Wisconsin tradition. And then we'll ask ourselves why we didn't see it coming. The answer might be that we looked for answers in Texas.

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