Patrick Durkin: CWD continues to spread in Wisconsin

Patrick Durkin: CWD continues to spread in Wisconsin

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Deer

Chronic wasting disease was verified in wild deer in Oneida and Eau Claire counties for the first time last week.

Two wild deer far outside Wisconsin’s endemic zone for chronic wasting disease tested positive last week for the always-fatal disease, and yet the Department of Natural Resources downplayed the news in press releases, emphasizing instead that the discoveries renewed baiting and feeding bans for the areas.The new CWD cases were reported April 18 in Eau Claire County and April 20 in Oneida County. Both were those counties’ first CWD cases in wild deer. The Eau Claire County case is 120 miles from Wisconsin’s most CWD-infected area – much of Iowa, Dane, Sauk and Richland counties.

A landowner in the town of Brunswick, southwest of the city of Eau Claire, reported a sick deer March 21. The 2-year-old doe was dead the next morning when a DNR conservation warden arrived. The site is about 33 miles west of a 10-acre deer-breeding facility, Fairchild Whitetails, which had 34 CWD-infected deer when its herd was exterminated in November 2015. Two bucks escaped from the farm earlier, and roamed five months before being shot nearby and testing positive for CWD.

The Oneida County case is 170 miles from southwestern Wisconsin’s hot zone, but only 2 miles from Lincoln County’s first CWD-infected wild deer. That was a 2.5-year-old buck killed during the November 2017 gun season across the Wisconsin River in the Crescent Flats area.

To further assess that area, the DNR issued harvest tags to 11 landowners in a 27-square mile area along the Wisconsin River. Of 10 deer shot in March, a 1-year-old doe in the Crescent township tested positive. The region’s other known CWD cases were nine captive deer about 25 miles northeast at the Three Lakes Trophy Ranch near Three Lakes.

Despite those findings, the DNR’s communications office acted as if the news was a footnote to renewing baiting and feeding bans. Those restrictions are in effect for at least three years in Oneida and Eau Claire counties, and two years in Langlade, Buffalo, Dunn, Pepin, Chippewa and Trempealeau counties.

Then again, downplaying CWD has been the DNR’s game-plan since Gov. Scott Walker took office in January 2011. Gov. Walker quickly entrusted Wisconsin’s deer management to Greg Kazmierski by appointing him to the Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy.

Kazmierski owns and operates Buck Rub Outfitters in Pewaukee, an archery/bowhunting pro shop and manufacturer. Kaz frequently fusses that publicly discussing CWD hurts tourism and makes hunters go elsewhere or quit hunting.

Case in point: When Tami Ryan, the DNR’s wildlife health section chief, spoke at the DNR Board’s Feb. 28 meeting, she reported that an Iowa County study found CWD-infected deer dying at three times the rate of healthy deer. Instead of probing such findings, Kazmierski fretted that DNR data and terminology make Wisconsin’s CWD status sound worse than necessary.

Kaz urged the agency to quit using the word “affected” for counties within 10 miles of a CWD case. He suggests labeling them “watch counties” so folks don’t confuse “affected” with “infected.” Board member Fred Prehn chimed in, saying many CWD-affected counties have never had a deer test positive.

Sigh. How can we declare any county CWD-free when the DNR hasn’t conducted widespread systematic testing in over a decade? As if on cue, the DNR has since documented CWD in wild deer in three new counties despite only 49 tests in Lincoln County, 90 in Eau Claire County, and 200 in Oneida County the past year.

Kazmierski, his fellow Board members, the governor and GOP legislators act as if CWD responds to amateurish public-relations gambits. As they blather, CWD increasingly threatens Wisconsin’s deer and deer-hunting heritage.

Of roughly 32,000 whitetails killed in Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland counties in 2016, only 7 percent (2,291) got tested for CWD. Meanwhile, hunters from 49 states killed deer in those counties in 2016-17. How many hunters took those untested deer home, ate the venison, and dumped the bones outdoors to shed CWD-causing prions in new areas?

Meanwhile, the DNR’s communications office also failed to issue its annual CWD recap this month — a report it usually releases in late March to early April. When asked about the missing report Thursday, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said it would be released Tuesday, May 1.

For the record, the agency documented a record 599 CWD cases during the 2017-18 surveillance year, which runs April through March. The DNR tested more deer last year (9,879) than in 2016-17, a 62 percent increase from 6,095, but still documented a 6 percent infection rate. The infection rate for 447 positives in 2016-17 was 7.3 percent.

When the DNR tested 9,305 deer in 2007, the infection rate was 1.9 percent (135 cases) among 7,192 deer analyzed in the southern farmlands zone. That area’s infection rate in 2017 was 10.6 percent (588 cases) for 5,545 deer tested.

The DNR hasn’t yet updated its CWD prevalence charts, but here are some infection rates through 2016:

— North-central Iowa County: Adult bucks, 51 percent infected; adult doe, 31 percent.

— Southwestern Sauk County: Adult bucks, 46 percent infected; adult doe, 30 percent.

— Southeastern Richland County: Adult bucks, 42 percent infected; adult doe, 20 percent.

— Southcentral Iowa County: Adult bucks, 38 percent infected; adult doe, 22 percent.

— Northwestern Iowa County: Adult bucks, 37 percent infected; adult doe, 18 percent.

— Southwest core area (border of Dane, Iowa counties): Adult bucks, 33 percent infected, adult doe, 15 percent.

— Southeastern Iowa County: Adult bucks, 32 percent infected; adult doe, 10 percent.

Those infection rates jumped dramatically since 2010, even though only 21 percent (43,235) of all CWD samples (209,834) were collected those years. In contrast, 62.5 percent (2,613) of all Wisconsin CWD cases (4,184) were confirmed since 2010.

These examples of endemic indifference by elected officials might explain why two CWD-related floor resolutions drew overwhelming support among mostly conservative crowds at April 9’s statewide fish and wildlife hearings. One resolution demanded stricter laws governing deer/elk farms, and the other urged stronger safeguards to prevent CWD’s spread. Both resolutions came up for votes at 40 county hearings, and at least one made the agenda in 14 other counties. All 94 votes delivered landslide victories.

Maybe those voters no longer believe politicians who say CWD isn’t their problem.

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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