DNR tries new approach to chronic wasting disease

Season allows unlimited bag numbers in disease zones

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 16, 2006, 10:38 a.m.)

Deer hunting seasons were changed. Tags were available in different quantities. An earn-a-buck program was tried. Cash incentives were made available. Sharpshooters were brought in.

All this in an effort to reduce Wisconsin's deer population after chronic wasting disease-a fatal, communicable brain disease of deer and elk-was discovered four years ago.

But have the efforts worked?

"There's been some progress in the first couple years, and we definitely made progress in reduction areas," said Brad Koele, assistant big game specialist.
Progress. Just not a lot, DNR officials note.

"We still need to reduce numbers. If anything, the deer density may have declined slightly," said Keith Warnke, big game specialist. "In general though, CWD spreading throughout the area is still a huge risk."

Rules and regulations have evolved over the years and the department is still searching for the right formula to control the disease.

Since the first state deer tested positive for CWD in 2002, the DNR has taken the approach of destroying the disease by eradicating the herd near infected areas.

It created two eradication zones where the disease was most prevalent. A herd reduction area, that covers all or part of 19 counties, acts as a buffer around the eradication zones.

The DNR would like to see five deer per square mile of habitat in the eradication zone and no more than 10 per square mile of habitat in the reduction zone.

In Rock, Walworth and Green counties, current deer populations are 270 percent to 470 percent over goals, depending on areas, Koele said.

The aim remains disease eradication, but the DNR has switched its focus, said Tami Ryan, CWD operations supervisor for the state's southeastern region.

The disease is still prevalent, but it hasn't spread outside the boundaries of the reduction area.

"Right now we want to contain it to where it is," Ryan said. "To do so requires a lot of effort on our part, cooperation from hunters and private landowners.

"Ultimately, down the road, if we're successful in containing CWD, then we'll seek to eradicate it."

A cooperative effort

The cooperation between the DNR and hunters appears to have opened up this year.

The state discontinued an unpopular "earn-a-buck" program in CWD zones that forced a hunter to kill an antlerless deer before earning a buck tag.

The thought behind that program was to have hunters shoot more does to quickly reduce the population. Bucks are by far the more sought-after prey.

Instituted this year in CWD areas, hunters can shoot unlimited does or bucks, which was a request sportsman's groups made to the Natural Resources Board. The DNR is banking on hunters to bag as many deer as possible in the CWD zones, especially on the first weekend of the gun season.
The move seems to be popular, especially after the earn-a-buck seasons left many larger racks roaming the woods.

"Deer are very mature this year," said Janesville taxidermist Don Rich, Jr., owner of Nature's Touch Taxidermy. "A lot are in the 5- and 6-year-old bracket instead of the 2- to 3-year-old olds, which were the average I mounted. I think the earn-a-buck let a lot of big bucks go."

Evansville hunter Aaron Dobbs was glad to see the switch. As a guide, he's had plenty of clients who had to let bucks go because their doe quota wasn't met.

"(The DNR's) whole thing is to get the population down. And they'd have more kills if it wasn't for earn-a-buck," Dobbs said. "People would have to pass up these bucks because they hadn't gotten their does yet.

"The guys who are going to shoot does, are going to shoot their does. The guys that just want to shoot bucks are still going to shoot their bucks."
If the plan doesn't work, the DNR is ready to go back to using earn-a-buck regulations, Warnke said.

"If (unlimited tags) don't work, if there's a major problem in its effectiveness, then it's not going to be back," he said. "The options for lengthy gun seasons and earn-a-buck and a variety of other things are going to be put in place."

The DNR isn't ready to scrap the plan just yet.

"We're coming up on the highest deer harvest (weekend) of the season," Ryan said. "It's when the greatest number are generally killed. I'm hopeful yet that the harvest will be significantly increased. In the end, maybe we'll have a good harvest behind us."

More cooperation needed

To reach those goals, hunters say they need to have access to lands where the herds are.

Public lands in this part of the state receive too much pressure and deer herds alertly congregate on nearby lands where hunting is limited.

"The harvest will depend a lot upon the availability of people to get onto private property," said Jess Heflick, a retired hunter safety instructor from Delavan. "Right here, especially around my home, there is a lot of private ground, much of which is closed off to hunting. People aren't allowing hunters there.

"I personally see a lot of deer crossing the roads and going onto these properties, too. And these will be the same people complaining about crop damage and tree damage."

The DNR will continue its outreach program of contacting landowners in the CWD areas and stressing the importance of reducing the deer numbers on their land, Ryan said.

"I feel that one of the biggest problems is access to land," Koele said. "It's hard to decrease the herd if hunters can't get at them. If people open up their property, that's helping the natural resource and letting people have some hunting opportunities, also."

Season opener

The statewide nine-day gun deer season starts Saturday and concludes Sunday, Nov. 26.

In chronic wasting disease zones, gun hunting will remain open until Sunday, Dec. 10.

For more information on the deer hunting season and chronic wasting disease, visit the Department of Natural Resources Web site at http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/hunt/deer/index.htm.

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