Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole discusses chronic wasting disease and management of the state’s deer herd at the Rock Creek Town Hall in Eau Claire County, Jan. 22, 2020 (Contributed photo)
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole discusses chronic wasting disease and management of the state’s deer herd at the Rock Creek Town Hall in Eau Claire County, Jan. 22, 2020 (Contributed photo)

DNR chief gets an earful about the need to rise above short-term interests

Each time he hears about another confirmed case of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin, Mark Noll worries the deer hunting tradition he has enjoyed for virtually all of his life in the wooded bluffs of Buffalo County is moving closer to disappearing.

Noll, who operates a dairy farm near Alma, has watched with trepidation as CWD has spread across the state and nearer to his farm, located in a county famous for trophy bucks. 

So far the disease has not been detected there, but in the past two years, five deer that tested positive for CWD were discovered in nearby Eau Claire County, and last year another was discovered in Dunn County, northwest of Noll’s home. Given current management practices — or the lack of such measures, Knoll contends — it seems like only a matter of time until CWD makes its way to Buffalo County too, he said.  

“We’re dealing with a crisis for our deer herd,” Noll said Thursday morning from the farm overlooking the Mississippi River that has been in his family since the 1920s. “We need to do more to assess CWD and prevent its spread, and we’re running out of time.”

Noll isn’t alone in fearing the adverse impacts of CWD on Wisconsin’s deer hunt, an important, deeply-held tradition to more than 500,000 hunters annually. As the number of deer testing positive for CWD in the state continues to climb, many hunters have urged the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees management of Wisconsin’s deer herd, to reinstate mandatory deer registration as a means of better tracking the disease. 

Noll strongly backs that idea. The chairman of the Buffalo County County Deer Advisory Council (CDAC) said not forcing hunters to register the deer they kill hinders efforts to monitor CWD. Without mandatory registration, “trying to track CWD gets a lot more difficult,” he said. 

CWD is fatal to white-tailed deer and other members of the deer family. The disease is caused by a misshaped prion, or protein, that causes holes to form in the brain. It has not been shown to cause illness in humans, but the Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies recommend humans not consume meat from CWD-positive animals.

CWD was first discovered at a Colorado research facility in 1967, and in 2002 it was detected in Wisconsin, in three deer near Mt. Horeb. As of March, 2018 about 210,000 deer have been tested for CWD in Wisconsin, with more than 4,100 positive tests. 

In 2018, 1,060 deer were detected with CWD, a record high. That figure is not yet available for 2019. Of the state’s 72 counties, 55 are considered to be impacted by CWD, meaning they are near a confirmed case of the disease and are in danger of it spreading there. 

For several years after CWD’s detection in Wisconsin, the DNR undertook aggressive measures to eliminate the disease. However, after encountering push-back against those measures from some landowners, hunters and lawmakers, the agency has softened its stance and has taken a more-lax monitoring approach.

Advocates for a more lax approach to CWD said past deer hunting rules in the state were too complicated. Online registration is more convenient for hunters than the old system of registering deer at specified stations, they said. Others have cited the added cost of monitoring CWD more closely. 

“In this age of cellphones, I don’t think it’s necessary to have to go register your deer at only certain sites,” said Dave Weber, a hunter who lives in Outagamie County. “We shouldn’t be making it harder for people to hunt.” 

On Thursday Noll and other deer hunters voiced their opinions about CWD and the state’s deer management efforts at a meeting near Rock Falls in Eau Claire County, an event attended by DNR Secretary Preston Cole. Several speakers said they’re frustrated the state isn’t doing more to track and manage CWD to limit its spread.

“The state has basically taken the approach of ‘Let’s just sit back and watch.’ That’s not working,” said David Zielke, the CDAC chairman of Eau Claire County who attended the meeting. 

Like Noll, Zielke advocates for a more rigorous monitoring system of CWD, and mandatory registration should be part of that effort, he said. Last year the CDAC chairs of Buffalo, Eau Claire, Treampealeau, Dunn, Pepin and Chippewa counties proposed the state enforce mandatory deer registration in five townships surrounding the sites in their region where deer tested positive for CWD. That proposal was shot down by the Natural Resources Board, a frustration to Zielke and others who back more efforts to manage CWD. The growth of the disease across Wisconsin “is an epidemic,” Zielke said, that threatens “to change deer hunting as we know it in this state.”

Eau Claire resident Bob Decker, who hunts deer in Buffalo County, said CWD is a “hot topic” that is divisive among deer hunters. He called the spread of the disease “a definite concern” and said he backs mandatory registration and increased CWD monitoring. 

“I have faith in the scientists who are studying this issue, and I think we should listen to what they have to say,” Decker said.    

Eau Claire resident Bob Decker drags a deer from a woods where he hunts. (Contributed photo)

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, agrees. Last year she introduced three bills in the Assembly designed to make it easier to test for CWD and properly dispose of deer tested. Her proposal also called for greater monitoring of the disease and education about it. 

The estimated cost of the bills is $2.2 million this year and next. State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Town of Brunswick, introduced the legislation in the Senate. So far the bills have not garnered a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature, a source of frustration for Shankland, who began hunting in recent years.

“These bills are designed to be bipartisan, and it is disappointing that (Republicans) won’t put their names to this,” she said.

State Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage that discusses deer management issues, was not available for comment. 

Noll blames the lack of action regarding CWD on money interests, people who would stand to lose out on the $2.5 billion annual economic impact of deer hunting in Wisconsin. In big-buck territory near him, Noll said landowners are charging as much as $30,000 per year for people to hunt on their property. “Too many people want to downplay this because they’re afraid of too much talk about CWD. It’s all about the money,” Noll said.

If more isn’t done soon to slow the spread of CWD, deer hunting in Wisconsin is likely to be severely impacted, he said. 

“Unless we start addressing this soon, we may not have much of a deer hunt left in Wisconsin in the future,” Noll said.