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DNR toxicologiests, swans

DNR toxicologists helped detect lead contamination in trumpeter swans, and determine the best sites to reduce exposure to lead shotgun pellets once used for waterfowl hunting.

The Department of Natural Resources quietly eliminated yet another research-based job during the agency’s reorganization announced in late November, this time axing the wildlife toxicology post that studied how lead, mercury, pesticides and other contaminants hurt fish, loons, eagles, waterfowl and other species.

The toxicology position survived the 2015 job purge by lawmakers, who cut staffing 31 percent in the DNR’s bureau of science by eliminating 18 of its jobs from the state budget. Sean Strom, the biologist currently holding the statewide toxicology post, declined comment Tuesday when asked to confirm his position was eliminated in DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s reorganization plan.

Strom’s supervisor, Tami Ryan, also declined comment, writing in an email that she was not “an authorized spokesperson” on the subject. Ryan deferred to her supervisor, Aaron Buchholz, deputy administrator of the DNR’s fish, wildlife and parks division. Buchholz didn’t return phone or email messages seeking comment Tuesday and Wednesday.

The DNR’s communications office in Madison confirmed the cut Wednesday afternoon by emailing this bureau-speak:

“The toxicologist position is being reallocated to meet high-priority workload identified through the alignment process.

“DNR is developing plans to accomplish future wildlife toxicology work as the transition occurs in the months ahead.

“We are working to utilize the expertise of all positions through other options within the agency.”

In other words: “Just trust us. Now scat! We don’t have to tell you anything.”

The move, however, caused former DNR Secretary George Meyer to shudder in surprise when asked about it Wednesday in Madison during a meeting on chronic wasting disease at the Lussier Family Heritage Center. Meyer is executive director of the 6,000-member Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which also represents 185 hunting, fishing, trapping and forestry groups. He served as DNR secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson from 1993 to 2001.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Meyer said. “I was briefed extensively on the realignment plan twice, and it was never mentioned. And it was not obvious in the realignment plan. I would have raised concerns if it had been. Toxicology work is essential to the health of all game and nongame species. The public needs to know how chemicals, diseases and heavy metals affect fish and wildlife, and which contaminants we consume when eating them.”

The DNR’s wildlife toxicology program was created in 1991, and Strom has held the state toxicologist position since December 2000. Judging by scientific papers and reports he generated the past 16 years, Strom earned his keep. His research took him around the state to investigate:

-- contaminant levels of PCBs, lead, mercury and cadmium in mallard ducks and Canada geese in the lower Fox River and Green Bay area;

-- contaminant levels in the Sheboygan River system and Milwaukee estuary, and their impacts on fish and wildlife;

-- lead poisoning in loons caused by swallowing lost fishing sinkers;

-- lead poisoning in trumpeter swans caused by swallowing remnant lead shotgun pellets in wetlands;

-- botulism’s impact on migrating Wisconsin water-birds exposed to the Gulf oil spill;

-- contaminants in urban Canada geese whose meat is donated to food pantries;

-- lead-fragment levels in hunter-killed venison donated to food pantries;

-- and lead poisoning in bald eagles that swallowed bullet fragments while scavenging gut piles from gun-killed deer.

A search of “wildlife toxicology” in the DNR’s staff directory lists only Strom and Ryan as contacts, but Ryan is not a toxicologist. She’s a wildlife biologist in a supervisory post with 10 other areas of responsibility. The DNR’s other longtime toxicologist was Michael Meyer, whose position wasn’t filled after he retired in July 2015.

Then again, wildlife toxicology is a field that’s lost ground nationwide during the 2000s, even as science keeps discovering dangerous contaminants in modern products like rainwear, pesticides, herbicides, lubricants and fast-food wrappers.

In the scientific paper “History of Wildlife Toxicology,” Barnett Rattner of the U.S. Geological Survey writes that advances in analytical ecology, chemistry, biochemistry, population modeling and risk assessment once advanced wildlife toxicology’s stature. In fact, environmental contaminants could have caused extinctions of some species had not regulatory and remedial actions been taken.

Even so, Rattner said wildlife toxicology is losing funding support to human-oriented toxicological research on climate change and homeland security. As a result, wildlife toxicology research is increasingly reactive.

Rattner wrote: “Unexpected and unpredicted contaminant problems continue to drive the field of wildlife toxicology. … In many instances, human-risk assessments do not adequately protect other biota, and for the most part wildlife toxicology continues to progress in response to exposure incidents and animal die-offs rather than proactive research.”

The Wisconsin DNR was bucking that trend until Stepp’s reorganization. For instance, although the Michigan DNR still studies toxicology in its wildlife-disease laboratory at Michigan State University in Lansing, the Minnesota DNR does not employ a wildlife toxicologist. Nor does the Illinois DNR, which uses a “sister agency” approach with the University of Illinois to investigate wildlife diseases and die-offs.

Elsewhere, 19 states from Nebraska to Pennsylvania and Louisiana to Florida funnel their wildlife-toxicology work through a cooperative at the University of Georgia called the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. The SCWDS website claims it’s a cost-effective effort: “By sharing facilities, vehicles, scientific equipment, salaries, and other costs, each sponsoring agency has access to wildlife capabilities far more sophisticated and responsive than could be afforded individually.”

Meyer said his concerns about Wisconsin’s wildlife toxicology work “might be mitigated” if the DNR pursued similar university- or cooperative-based efforts. However, other than Wednesday’s obscure statement from the DNR’s communications office, the agency hasn’t outlined its options.

That’s not surprising. After all, Stepp sat silent as lawmakers gutted the DNR’s science and communication/education bureaus in 2015, and insists her staff offer only information – not position statements – when testifying at legislative hearings.

Maybe she’ll just wait for the next new toxin to kill fish or wildlife, and then ask lawmakers to tell her what it means.

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Contact Patrick Durkin, a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin, at patrickdurkin56@gmail.com or write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981.

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