By Eric Lindquist
EAU CLAIRE — Just three days before the start of Wisconsin’s gun-deer season, a pair of Democratic legislators are introducing a trio of bills they believe will help preserve the state’s deer hunting tradition by addressing chronic wasting disease.
State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, are co-authors of the “Healthy Herd, Healthy Hunt” legislative package they plan to unveil today that aims to help reduce and prevent the spread of CWD in Wisconsin.
The bills would provide funding for CWD testing, deer carcass disposal and CWD research.
“We’re trying to fund some necessary steps we need to take,” Smith said Tuesday. “We’re trying to curb the spread of this terrible disease.”
CWD is an always fatal, contagious neurological disease of deer, elk and moose that was first detected in five southern Wisconsin counties in 2002.
Since then, it has affected 56 of the state’s 72 counties, according to the DNR. The agency has conducted increased surveillance in recent years, with nearly 19,000 samples collected last year. Of those, nearly 1,600 animals from 23 counties tested positive.
Smith maintained the spread of CWD in Wisconsin poses a serious threat to white-tailed deer herds throughout the state, with the potential to harm local economies and the tourism industry if it isn’t kept under control.
“It’s not going to stop spreading on its own. It’s only going to get worse,” Smith said. “What our bills do is fund these simple steps to do something about it.”
The proposals would:
• Provide $200,000 in 2021-23 to the DNR to continue administering a program under which it provides self-service CWD sampling kiosks where hunters can drop off deer carcass parts for sampling.
• Deliver $2 million to the DNR to provide large metal containers throughout the state in 2021-23 where hunters may dispose of deer carcasses. The agency already provides some of the disposal sites — intended to help stop the disease’s spread through improper carcass disposal — but others are funded by private organizations. That bill also provides $100,000 to the DNR for hunter education about CWD.
• Appropriate $2 million in 2021-23 for the DNR to do research on and management of CWD.
Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi and chairman of the Assembly’s Sporting Heritage Committee, said he would prefer to address such spending proposals in the normal budget process.
“I’m not sure if now is the time to spend money on this,” Pronschinske said, adding that he would be willing to look at the proposals and to discuss the need for research funding with DNR officials. “Our job as legislators is to justify the use of tax dollars in every case.”
Pat Quaintance, a Bayfield resident and president of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he supports putting more money into CWD research so state officials can learn more about the disease and find out what steps are effective in curbing its spread.
While Pronschinske said the state should keep monitoring CWD, he noted that the disease has been around for many years without a major impact.
“As an avid hunter and someone who’s been in the woods a lot in recent days, I think the deer herd is healthy,” he said, although he encouraged hunters to dispose of carcasses in ethical ways and to have deer tested if they appear sick.
DNR officials have encouraged testing statewide to help them determine the disease’s prevalence and said sampling is particularly important in parts of the state where CWD already has been detected. That includes a surveillance area composed of five towns in rural Eau Claire, Dunn and Pepin counties where 12 wild deer have tested positive over the past four years.
Fortunately, Smith said, there are no documented cases of CWD affecting humans, but the state Department of Health Services and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend against consuming venison from infected animals.