Wisconsin is taking steps this year to continue at least some testing to keep tabs on a deadly disease that is spreading through the state’s deer herd, even though hunters no longer need to bring carcasses in for registration.

But the number of tests is dwindling while prevalence of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin grows and neighboring states fight to control it, Department of Natural Resources officials said.

With the nine-day gun deer season starting Saturday, the DNR has half the CWD testing budget it had last year and enough resources to analyze tissue from 4,000 carcasses, down from 7,500 last year, said Tami Ryan, the agency’s wildlife health section chief.

The state is following wishes expressed by the public in dozens of forums since the disease was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002, Ryan said.

“Many different iterations of public input have shaped our protocol from being very aggressive in the beginning to then monitoring and now not monitoring but doing surveillance to give the information to hunters who want it,” Ryan said.

More than half the state’s 72 counties are now considered affected by CWD because cases have been found in or near them. Last year the DNR stopped using the term “CWD management zone” for the southern Wisconsin region encompassing the worst infestations.

“In the absence of having any management strategies or tools to deal with it, it is basically an endemic area,” Ryan said. “We know it’s there and it’s not likely to go away. That’s what endemic means: It’s here to stay.”

It’s not clear how a new system for registering deer carcasses will affect tissue collection, Ryan said. The state this year ended in-person registration at locations where DNR staffers solicited samples. Hunters are required to register via telephone or computer.

Critics are worried about what the disease will do to the deer herd over time.

“It is going to spread further and further out and eventually have an impact on the number of deer in the state,” said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “What is really troubling to me is that the biologists in the department know this is the case but they are not allowed to talk about it and not allowed to bring forth proactive measures to deal with it.”

CWD prevalence in the Wisconsin has doubled since the state became less aggressive in 2007, while in Illinois, where officials continued to reduce the herd in diseased areas, there has been no increase, University of Illinois researchers found in a 2014 study.

Meanwhile, Michigan natural resources managers last week announced they are distributing bumper stickers and putting up billboards near the Wisconsin border with the Upper Peninsula to remind hunters of restrictions on bringing deer back from infected states and provinces.

“This is an insidious disease and it’s going to take partnership by all people concerned — hunters, DNR and other folks — to make sure that not only do we not get it, but if we ever do get it, that we don’t spread this disease across the peninsula,” Terry Minzey, Michigan DNR regional wildlife supervisor said in a press release. “It can have long-term ramifications on our deer herd. While it may not impact us, it will certainly have impacts on our grandchildren.”

Under the new electronic carcass registration system, the DNR has 64 locations where hunters can bring tissue for sampling, including seven self-service kiosks, and more than 200 businesses and DNR offices will make phones or computers available for hunters who don’t want to register at home.

But the agency will solicit samples at only two locations in southern Wisconsin, where the disease is most prevalent. That’s down from between 15 and 20 locations in recent years, said Julie Widholm, a Madison-based wildlife manager for the CWD program. Plans also call for staff members to collect samples from about 10 venison processors, Widholm said.

After CWD was first detected in Wisconsin, the DNR initially sought to eradicate it and then to control it, primarily by reducing deer numbers through extended hunting seasons and deploying teams of sharpshooters in the southern Wisconsin areas where it was found.

“Public sentiment quickly waned when we had sharpshooting (in the winter of 2006-2007),” Ryan said.

More than 40,000 tissue samples were tested in 2002. Current budgeting is in line with the simpler and more passive stance recommended by James Kroll, a Texas wildlife biologist chosen by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 to find ways the state could mollify hunters who blamed the DNR when they didn’t bag a deer.

Divided hunters

Science hasn’t linked CWD directly to human versions of the disease, but the state Division of Health Services recommends testing before eating venison and some hunters follow that guidance.

Fear of eating CWD-tainted venison initially scared many hunters and made owners of hunting land in southern Wisconsin concerned that their property would lose value if the hunt died off, said Jeff Schinkten, national president of Whitetails Unlimited.

The Wisconsin-based group donated $300,000 to CWD management early on, but over time hunters grew divided about what should be done, Schinkten said. The organization lost chapters over what position the group should take on baiting bans, which are designed to slow the disease’s spread.

“This majestic animal was reduced to almost a rat, a diseased animal,” Schinkten said. He said CWD is a serious problem, but he believes in allowing the DNR to do its job, so he’s willing to wait and see what the results of current policies bring.

The number of samples testing positive for CWD ballooned from 219 in 2010 to 331 last year even though fewer samples are being analyzed.

Near the boundary between Dane and Iowa counties the prevalence of CWD in male deer has increased to over 25 percent from about 9 percent in 2002, the DNR estimates. It has grown in adult females to 10 percent from between 3 and 4 percent.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.