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Few state wildlife agencies match the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ proficiency for cranking out data and perspectives soon after the state’s annual nine-day deer season ends in late November.

Deer hunters, we learned, recorded the state’s safest firearms season on record during the Nov. 17-25 hunt, and brought home roughly 7 percent more deer than in 2017.

The DNR made that record official one day after the season closed, noting only three shooting accidents during the season. That’s one less shooting than in 2014, and three less than in 2017.

That feat also marked the third straight year no one died of a gun-shot wound during deer season, which is also a record. Twice before -- 2010 to 2011, and 2013 to 2014 – Wisconsin went two deer seasons without a fatal shooting.

This year’s deer hunting army also proved more efficient than in 2017, shooting 4.75 percent more bucks, 104,388 to 99,648; 3.75 percent more does and fawns, 107,042 to 103,166; and 4.22 percent more deer overall, 211,430 to 202,860.

And they tallied those kills with 2.3 percent fewer hunters than a year ago. Preliminary figures show the DNR sold 576,277 gun-deer licenses this year, a drop of 13,382 from 589,659 in 2017.

Sigh.

It’s there, my friends, where the DNR ran dry of good news from our deer woods. That sales decline in licenses marks the third straight year the DNR sold less than 600,000 gun-deer tags. Licenses stayed above that figure from 1977 through 2015.

Wisconsin is also on pace to verify more than 900 cases of chronic wasting disease in deer voluntarily submitted for testing before the 2018-19 CWD year ends March 31. As of Dec. 12, the DNR confirmed a record 816 CWD cases from 13,074 tests, and had at least 1,945 more samples to test. If that 6.24 percent overall infection rate holds, CWD cases will total about 940 this year. That’s an increase of over 50 percent from the state’s record 602 CWD cases in 2017.

CWD deniers and conspiracy theorists, of course, will claim those numbers are “inflated” because more hunters submitted deer for testing this year. Yes, 15,019 samples were submitted by Wednesday, roughly 52 percent more than the 9,900 submitted in 2017.

But let’s get specific. Most of those sick deer came from the DNR’s Southern Farmlands Zone, which stretches south to Illinois off a line from Vernon County on the Mississippi River to Ozaukee County on Lake Michigan. The DNR has already verified 811 CWD positives from 6,547 samples in that area, a 12.4 percent infection rate. A year ago, that zone had 590 CWD cases from 5,554 samples, a 10.6 percent infection rate.

In other words, the infection rate worsened by nearly 2 percentage points, even with 993 (18 percent) more analyzed samples in the pool, and 497 more samples awaiting tests. If that 12.4 percent infection rate holds, the Southern Farmlands will have about 875 CWD cases, or 285 (48 percent) more than in 2017.

Also realize the DNR conducted roughly the same number of CWD tests in 2003 (14,941) in Wisconsin, but found only 117 CWD cases, or 0.8 percent overall. Further, all 117 of those 2003 cases came from 13,610 samples in the Southern Farmlands, a 0.85 percent infection rate.

We should also note that Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland counties generate most CWD cases in the Southern Farmlands’ 20 counties. From 2001 through Wednesday, 4,501 of the zone’s 4,966 CWD cases (90.6 percent) came from those four counties, and CWD has worsened dramatically there the past nine years.

Each of those counties has already set records this year: Iowa County, 325 cases, 25 percent infection rate; Sauk, 153 cases, 20 percent infected; Richland, 153 cases, 13.1 percent infected; and Dane, 108 cases, 12 percent infected.

Despite those high infection rates, most of those counties’ hunters don’t submit deer for testing. Iowa County’s hunters submitted 1,379 samples so far this fall, or 39 percent of their 3,558 registered gun kills. Elsewhere, it was Dane County, 960 samples, or 38 percent of 2,535 gun-kills; Richland, 1,214 samples, 28 percent of 4,364 gun-kills; and Sauk, 812 samples, 16.4 percent of 4,953 gun-kills. Those harvest totals don’t include the counties’ archery/crossbow kills, which would further reduce the testing percentage.

Behind all those numbers, of course, are hunters and their families. Tyson Hall, 36, of Cross Plains, has killed three bucks the past two years; two south of Cazenovia in Richland County and one near Dodgeville in Iowa County. All three carried CWD.

Hall said he tests his deer for “peace of mind,” and gave the meat from all three bucks to a friend to use as cat food. “I won’t eat it, and I definitely won’t feed it to my baby boy,” he said. “With a possible 30- to 40-year incubation period for the disease, it’s not worth the risk.”

Doug Duren of Cazenovia spurred efforts to increase disease monitoring in his area by providing a self-serve CWD-sampling kiosk and dumpster for deer carcasses on his family’s farm on Highway 58. He said hunters left at least 50 test samples at his kiosk, and dumped at least 175 boned-out carcasses in his dumpster.

He helped several hunters fill out paperwork for the tests. Others declined the test but thanked him for providing the dumpster. “If nothing else, it gets more sick deer off the land,” Duren said.

Duren said stories like Hall’s aren’t unusual. Other hunters shared these accounts with Duren:

-- “We had a group of five guys (Iowa County) shoot four bucks this season, and all tested positive.”

-- “Twenty-four of 43 deer we killed tested positive (Richland County). All antlered bucks were positive, along with many does and some fawns. Fawns!”

-- “We’ve had seven out of 11 test positive so far (Richland County).”

-- “We love to hunt big bucks, but it’s getting harder to justify why we do it, since most of the time there’s a good chance no meat comes from it (Dane County).”

-- “The only justification we use now is that we’re removing diseased animals from the landscape.”

Hunting stories like those foretell a bleak future for deer hunting, but denying CWD’s realities won’t make them go away.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981; or by e-mail at patrickdurkin56@gmailcom.

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