Lawmakers Push DNR to Offer Tests to Hunters

Madison – State lawmakers released another $2 million Wednesday to bankroll Wisconsin’s fight against chronic wasting disease and told wildlife officials to come up with a plan to offer affordable disease tests to hunters.

At the same time, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell warned that the agency will be back in the next few weeks looking for at least $2.9 million more to combat the lethal brain disease that threatens Wisconsin’s white-tailed deer herd.

“We’ve taken every nickel and dime we could find to deal with CWD,” Bazzell told the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

Although the panel approved the $2 million, it required the agency to come up with a proposal on how the state could provide optional tests to ease the concerns of hunters before receiving any future funding.

It did not, however, require the state to make such tests available. Bazzell questioned the need to provide such tests, noting that the state lacks the capacity to provide on-demand testing, largely because it is already planning to perform 50,000 surveillance tests statewide.

“There is no food safety test for CWD, let’s be clear about that,” he said.

The tests don’t reveal if a deer is safe to eat, just if the causative agent is present in the specific tissue that was tested, according to the Wisconsin Interagency CWD Science and Planning Committee. For instance, a test can prove negative in brain and lymph node samples, but positive in other tissues or positive if tested a few weeks later.

“If I could give a test to everyone who wants it, I would have done it a long time ago,” Bazzell added.

Robert Shull, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, noted that hunters have been convinced that testing for the disease is an assurance that venison is safe, which is not the case.

“Our leaders have not followed our lead on this. They’ve continued to whip people into a frenzy of thinking that they need this test,” Shull said.

Shibilski Pushes for Test

Sen. Kevin Shibilski (D-Stevens Point) called for the DNR to come up with a testing proposal, saying it could curb the fears of hunters and encourage more of them to take to the woods in next month’s deer gun season.

Shibilski claimed the DNR fed a public hysteria about the disease after it was identified in February and now owes the hunting public some peace of mind.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is reviewing several rapid-screen tests, but the timetable for federal approval is uncertain.

“It’s not enough to revert to a policy of, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ ” Shibilski said. “I really feel we’re on the verge of an environmental crisis.”

Shibilski said that Colorado – which has a much smaller deer herd and far fewer hunters – offers hunters a $17 unapproved disease test. Wisconsin officials have raised concerns about the reliability of unapproved tests.

“If we can’t reassure the million men and women who hunt deer in Wisconsin that the venison they pursue this fall is safe, we will lose our ability to control the size of this deer herd,” Shibilski said.

The state plans to test 50,000 deer, some in every county, during this fall’s hunt to see if the disease has spread.

Bazzell said the DNR is telling hunters if they are uncomfortable with consuming venison to harvest and register their deer, have them safely processed and freeze the meat until those county testing results come back.

Surveillance testing for the disease is 99% certain to detect the disease if it is present in 1% of the population, Bazzell said.

Cost Could Grow

Late last month, Bazzell estimated that fighting the disease would cost at least $12.2 million in this fiscal year – a price tag that could balloon if the disease spreads. In spring, the Legislature met in special session and approved spending $4 million to control the disease and required the DNR to report back to the Joint Finance Committee after spending the first $2 million.

The rising costs of sampling, detection and disposal of deer carcasses will require the DNR to shift another $4.6 million from other accounts to help cover its costs, Bazzell said. The agency has also received $709,745 in federal grants to help with the effort. Bazzell predicted the DNR may need another $2.9 million in the next several weeks.

In deciding to release the $2 million, lawmakers also changed the source of the funding. Officials first thought $1 million would come from the state’s wildlife damage account and $1 million would come from hunting and fishing license fees.

But because deer hunting license sales are down 22% from last year, lawmakers decided to take the $1 million from the state recycling fund, which was projected to have a $5 million surplus at the end of the fiscal year.

Wisconsin first discovered chronic wasting disease in three deer shot last fall near Mount Horeb, and since then, 28 more deer in that area have tested positive. One captive deer in Portage County has tested positive.