A Department of Natural Resources internal review found that the state’s handling of chronic wasting disease in deer was limited by funding and “social/political factors,” DNR staff said in a report made public Thursday.
The report was released to members of a citizens committee that met for the first time and heard scientists describe the disease’s advance as an accelerating wildfire that has burned through growing swaths of southern Wisconsin and will be hard to slow down as it moves across the rest of the state in coming years.
Members of the Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan Review Committee clashed over whether the state should continue the mostly passive approach it turned to several years ago after hunters, landowners and others objected to the DNR’s initial efforts at controlling CWD by thinning the herd in outbreak areas.
The review committee is to meet three more times before issuing final recommendations early next year.
The separate internal DNR staff report reviewing CWD management concluded that since 2010 the DNR had taken at least some action on 22 of 24 items in its 15-year plan and that it had excelled by leading the nation in testing tissue from deer carcasses.
But in the report’s executive summary, the department acknowledged shortcomings in progress toward the goal of minimizing the spread of the deadly disease, which was first detected near Mount Horeb in 2002.
The number of deer testing positive for CWD has increased sharply in the past five years. To date, the disease has been found in wild deer in 18 counties and in captive deer on 15 game farms, state officials said.
The report summary noted that five years ago the state greatly de-emphasized killing deer in high-infection areas and prohibitions on movement of carcasses were complicated by ongoing expansion of affected areas.
Baiting and feeding deer was banned in 41 of the state’s 72 counties to slow the disease’s spread, but one of the 15-year plan’s key objectives — a statewide ban — was not pursued.
A new system of electronic registration of harvested deer made collecting tissue samples more difficult, a promising professional marketing campaign to educate the public was discontinued because of cost, and lack of funds prevented scientific surveys of public attitudes about the disease’s spread, the report said.
Meanwhile, county-based advisory councils have been given great influence over DNR decisions at the 2012 recommendation of a Texas deer researcher, James Kroll, who was hired by Gov. Scott Walker as his “deer czar” in 2011. Kroll also recommended a passive approach to CWD control.
In 2015, advisory councils for nine counties facing CWD threats called for maintaining or increasing herds in their counties despite scientific evidence that reducing the herd would control the spread of disease.
The DNR questioned the groups’ reasoning but said it wanted to continue involving them in decision-making.
During Thursday’s meeting, committee member Laurie Seale cited recent statements by Kroll indicating the state of the herd in southern Wisconsin isn’t as bad as state scientists and CWD testing results indicate.
“I just really have heartburn with the idea of killing healthy deer to save the herd,” said Seale, who operates a deer farm near Gilman.
But veterinarian Dr. Mike Riggle of Medford said Kroll, who promotes himself under the name “Dr. Deer,” wasn’t in the same league as researchers from three states who described CWD to the committee during Thursday’s meeting.
“One of the things we need to deal with is just denial” of how serious the state’s CWD outbreak has become, said Riggle, who represented the Wisconsin Conservation Congress on the committee.
The committee heard about mounting evidence that CWD won’t go away by itself anytime soon from researchers Margaret Wild, a National Park Service scientist from Colorado; Nicholas Haley, a microbiologist from Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona; and Michael Samuel, a wildlife ecologist for the Wisconsin Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit.
Haley and Samuel said the disease was like a wildfire that is raging in the southern Wisconsin herds where it started and will eventually spread elsewhere.
“There’s very little you can do to keep it from getting worse,” Haley said of the core CWD areas around Mount Horeb and in southern Wisconsin. “You have to be on the edge of the burn scar to do much.”
Samuel and others said it was difficult to predict how long it will be before there are population declines in Wisconsin’s deer herd like those seen in the West, where the disease was detected in the 1980s.
After CWD was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002, the DNR spent millions of dollars trying to eradicate it by killing as many deer as possible in the infection zone.
But the state changed course in 2010 and adopted a new 15-year plan focused mostly on monitoring the disease after hunters and landowners resisted the eradication strategy, saying it was impractical and a waste of deer.
In March the DNR said 9.4 percent of 3,133 deer tested in 2015 were infected, the highest rate yet, and calls for action have increased with criticism of fencing at deer farms where the disease has been found, questions about feeding of wild deer, and proposals to restore scientist positions that elected officials have eliminated from the department.
Critics have also pointed to Illinois, which has maintained a 1 percent CWD rate by killing as many deer as possible in infected areas.
When Walker campaigned in 2010 for his first term as governor, he was critical of DNR deer management, and he oversaw implementation of the new policies. But this year he called for more study and guidelines for deer farms without endorsing reductions of infected deer populations.
During the plan review committee’s daylong meeting Thursday, member George Meyer, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director, asked why plans called for the group to create an addendum to the existing 15-year plan instead of revising it.
The DNR’s Bob Nack said the department didn’t expect a major overhaul of the plan unless the committee found gaping holes in it.
“The plan is solid as it is, but there might be areas to adjust and tweak,” Nack said.