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Fight against CWD weakened by budget cuts

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Sept. 17, 2007, 2:36 p.m.)

Facing budget cuts of more than $1 million from the state and more than $650,000 from the federal government, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has significantly scaled back its battle against Chronic Wasting Disease.

"We've lost 60 percent of our operations budget for 'on-the-ground' operations," said Davin Lopez, wildlife biologist for southeastern Wisconsin.

CWD is an always-fatal brain disease that was first discovered in Wisconsin deer herds in 2002. It was first found in the Mount Horeb area west of Madison. Since then, more than 850 have been found positive.

The department will not test any deer from outside the CWD herd reduction zones, instead focusing its efforts on the disease eradication areas-where CWD was most prevalent-and "spark" areas where the disease was found in higher concentrations outside eradication zones.

It will not, as it had done in years past, test areas outside of the zones to see if the disease is spreading, Lopez said. The DNR expects to test about 10,000 deer, about a third of the testing done last year, he added.

"They're not looking at the big picture here," said Jim Houck, an avid deer hunter from eastern Walworth County. "We know this CWD isn't going to be gone this year. It's still here. We know it's going to be where we found it. We need to test where it hasn't been found to see if it's spreading."

The funding shortfall, which also caused the elimination of the food pantry program in the CWD areas and the use of sharpshooters to further reduce deer populations in the disease zones, could set the DNR's fight back, officials said.

"I think it certainly puts a lot of things on hold, at least for the intermittent time," said Keith Warnke, big game specialist. "We're doing everything we can to provide the testing.

"The most important thing is to keep the hunters in the field. They are the most important tool to help manage populations."

With just five years of managing the disease, the DNR is still learning about the extent of the disease, said Greg Matthews, public affairs manager for the south central region.

"After five years it's tough to tell whether we have contained the disease to the south central Wisconsin or if we're just finding out where it is," he said. "Those efforts to contain a sustained database will be hurt because we are not able to sample as many deer."

The DNR sampled areas in the western part of the state last year and areas in the northeast in 2005. No positive cases were found. The DNR will not test for CWD in the northern areas as originally planned.

"We can't do it because of the budget cuts," Matthews said. "It would have been good to do that. If we sampled then northern part, we could have come back and said, 'it's only in the southern part.'"



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