Rumors are running wild this week as a legislative committee prepares to hear testimony on whether to extend rules related to controlling chronic wasting disease.

Those rules, which include a statewide ban on baiting and feeding, were approved by the Natural Resources Board in June and will expire Nov. 30 unless the Joint Committee on Review of Administrative Rules approves an extension on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The state Department of Natural Resources is seeking to extend the rule until Sept. 1, 2003, at which time it hopes to have a permanent rule in place.

The current rule gives the DNR authority to allow liberal hunting seasons in the CWD management area as well as the ability to ban deer baiting and feeding.

“All the science in the world indicates that baiting and feeding of deer are bad practices, especially in the face of disease,” said former DNR deer research biologist Keith McCaffery.

“Not just CWD, but about a dozen other diseases as well.”

McCaffery said any action to reverse the emergency rule would be based on power politics and money.

Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association founder Mark Toso said baiting supporters like feed mill owners and businesses that sell deer bait are putting pressure on committee members.

“It would be a shame if we couldn’t at least have one year of data on the impacts — or lack of them — of the baiting and feeding ban,” Toso said.

NRB power play?

Natural Resources Board member Steven Willett made a motion at last week’s meeting to allow baiting during the nine-day gun deer season.

Board chair Trygve Solberg and member Jim Tiefenthaler supported it, but members Herb Behnke, Gerald O’Brien and Howard (Dan) Poulson voted against it.

Catherine Stepp, whom insiders say has reversed her earlier support for the baiting and feeding ban, was absent, and the motion failed on a 3-3 tie.

Solberg told board members that since the deer kill was way down, hunters needed baiting to help fight CWD.

“How he could argue this before a gun season without baiting is a mystery,” Toso said. “The world is watching Wisconsin to see how well we handle CWD, so imagine how foolish we would look if we ignored the experts.”

Behnke, contacted at his home in Shawano on Wednesday, said he hadn’t heard rumors that some board members have been lobbying the legislative committee.

“I feel it would be unethical and inappropriate to lobby the Joint Committee to impose that kind of a ban on the DNR,” Behnke said.

“Let’s let the science dominate rather than popular opinion.”

DNR outdoor heritage specialist Keith Warnke said science has driven the state’s motivation for a baiting ban.

“There’s strong anecdotal and scientific evidence that CWD is passed through congregation of deer,” Warnke said.

“Leaving the baiting and feeding ban in place until we have test results back from the statewide sampling is critical to our effort.”

Wisconsin Farm Bureau president Poulson said he supports the DNR.

“I’m pro animal health, whether it’s or wildlife or domestic herds,” Poulson said. “I hope the legislators don’t do something that stymies our ability to deal with CWD.”

Committee members speak

State Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, a member of the joint committee, said more time is needed before the emergency rule should be modified.

“I think we have to let this issue play out for several years, at least, until we get our arms around CWD,” Cowles said. “I’d be surprised if the rule wasn’t extended.”

Committee clerk Justin Sargent, a staff member for the committee co-chair, state Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, said Robson has supported the baiting and feeding ban.

“There is an economic impact — and we certainly don’t want people going out of business — but safeguarding the deer herd and our hunting tradition is something we absolutely can’t risk,” Sargent said.

Committee member and state Rep. Lorraine Serrati, R-Spread Eagle, said she’s concerned about the effect of the ban on license sales and small businesses.

“One of the concerns that I have is there’s got to be scientific justification for (the ban),” Serrati said. “Certainly the science has to be part of the equation as well as the economic impacts.”

State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, another committee member, said his feeling is the rule must be extended.

“Caution is the best until we have a better understanding of the problem,” Hansen said.