PARK FALLS — Over 400 people, many of them obviously furious over the deer feeding and baiting ban imposed by the Department of Natural Resources as a still- unproven way to combat chronic wasting disease, attended a meeting at Park Falls High School Wednesday night, Jan. 22, organized by founders of a new group calling themselves “Voices of Wisconsin.”

It was the last of a series of meetings in northern Wisconsin organized by the group, including also locations at Ashland, Hayward, Iron River and Superior. The organization and newspapers serving those locations reported similar turnouts of crowds of people at least as upset as those attending the Park Falls meeting.

Neither the few DNR personnel attending the Park Falls meeting nor members of hunting organizations identified as supporters of the DNR’s action who were said to be present offered comments.

Besides comments by Larry Peterson, who introduced the organizers and delivered remarks at the end of the meeting, the organizers, State Sen. Russ Decker and Park Falls Mayor Eugene Schneider, it was members of the audience who did a large share of the talking.

Their comments ranged from calm, well- reasoned expressions of discontent by people who stood up to identify themselves, to angry shouts of “dictatorship” and “communists” aimed at the DNR from the midst of the audience. Others commenting from the audience from time to time, and a few standing up to comment, saw the ban as a property rights issue. They said people should be allowed to do what they want to do on their own land.

Other targets of criticism from time to time during the evening were the news media in general and outdoor columnists in particular for creating “hysteria” over CWD.

Decker, responding to a question from an audience member who wanted to know how the DNR got the authority to impose the baiting and feeding ban and the extent the legislature might have been responsible, said the DNR already had the authority to ban baiting.

He explained that the legislature’s involvement was to authorize regulation of feeding as well in response to DNR officials’ arguments that they needed that authority to deal with what they called the CWD crisis.

He said when the DNR made its presentation, he envisioned as the problem huge deer feeding lots with thousands of pounds of feed bringing in great numbers of deer. He said he assumed that the DNR would still allow feeding in small amounts of about two gallons at a time by individual landowners who liked to attract small numbers of deer to their homes.

Decker said he was surprised when the DNR imposed the total ban, and he resolved in response to questions about his intentions when the matter comes up for another vote that he would vote to overturn the ban.

When the same question was put to 87th District Rep. Mary Williams, who arrived after the meeting got underway, some members of the audience became insistent that she express her position more clearly after she stated without benefit of a microphone that she would vote against the ban.

“She wants to nuke it,” Decker said, jumping in to help her repeat her position. It was one of several times that Decker attempted during the course of the evening to temper the seriousness of the mood with light humor while dealing with questions about the legislature’s past and future role in the baiting issue.

In their opening remarks, Decker and Schneider attempted to impress upon the crowd the similar importance to hunters of the proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to hunt and fish. Decker and Schneider are active in the effort, and Schneider chairs a state committee working for a favorable public vote on the question.

The Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted 10-0 last week in favor of the so-called “sporting heritage” amendment, which now goes to the full assembly for a vote.

The amendment, which must be approved by two consecutive legislatures before going to a vote of the people in a statewide referendum, needs one more favorable vote in both houses of the legislature following its passage in both houses last year.

If both houses vote in favor this year, it then will have to be approved by voters before it can be added to the Wisconsin Constitution. Decker told the large audience Wednesday that there was talk in the legislature of waiting until next November to put the measure on the ballot. He said he thought that would be a mistake in view of the momentum that has been established.

The amendment would guarantee the right to fish, hunt, trap and take game subject only to reasonable restrictions as prescribed by law. Some present Wednesday expanded on Schneider’s and Decker’s call for all hunters and fishermen to stand together on the constitutional amendment issue by comparing it to the baiting issue, saying they all should stick together rather than looking out only for their own preferred hunting, fishing and trapping activities.

Some commenting on the need for such unity saw as ill will on the part of hunters who don’t use bait to want to ban the form of hunting of those who do in view of what they claimed was lack of any scientific evidence that a baiting ban was needed for the health of the deer in Wisconsin.

One stating that position emphatically was Ken Busalacchi of Park Falls, whose letters to The Park Falls Herald and other newspapers strongly criticized the DNR for the baiting and feeding ban and organizations that supported the ban.

He repeated those criticisms to loud applause at the meeting, calling on those present to cancel their memberships to Whitetails Unlimited, the Wisconsin Bowhunters and any other organization that supported the DNR ban. He urged that they give the money instead to “Voices of Wisconsin.”

Busalacchi included subscriptions to outdoor magazines in his call for providing no financial support of any kind to those supporting the DNR ban, urging that those present cancel their subscriptions to those publications. He took special exception to writings about CWD by Dean Bortz in Wisconsin Outdoor News.

He apparently was referring in part to a recent detailed article on CWD in the publication, quoting DNR officials at length and giving a detailed preview of events to take place at top levels before the question of a permanent ban is settled in April.

The article refers to the DNR’s request for an exemption to the baiting ban in the so- called eradication zone, which was approved Jan. 7, to allow baiting under strictly controlled conditions as an attempt to facilitate the eradication effort. Several present attacked the exemption, with one calling it extremely hypocritical on the DNR’s part.

The article reported that a statewide deer baiting and feeding ban was among permanent rule changes proposed by the DNR to combat CWD. The DNR was to present the proposed permanent rule to the Natural Resources Board on Jan. 22 in Madison, but rather than asking the board’s approval at that time, the DNR asked the board’s approval to take the proposal to public hearings in February and March.

Once the public hearing process has ended, the DNR is expected to formalize its final recommendation, then return to the board at its April 23 meeting for final approval, according to the article.

One member of the audience, Dick Ludwig of Butternut Lake, took the podium to comment at length about his total disillusionment with the DNR in imposing a baiting ban after a survey in which he was involved showed decisively that the majority of hunters favored continuation of baiting.

Ludwig said he spent hours of his time as part of the Deer 2000 effort to get public input. He said the DNR surveyed 10,460 hunters on the baiting question, with 5,954 responding in favor of allowing baiting and 4,506 responding in opposition to baiting. He said that was 57% in favor and 43% against, which he felt should have established clear direction for the DNR.

Ludwig said the DNR not only failed to heed the results of the survey, but refused to announce the results publicly. He said he obtained the figures and released them himself, thus refuting claims he said the DNR still continues to make about a survey it took in 1993 while pretending the Deer 2000 survey was never taken.

He expanded further on the issue in a call to The Herald after reading a statement in the Jan. 23 issue attributed to DNR Regional Wildlife Supervisor Mike Zeckmeister. Zeckmeister was quoted as saying that in the DNR’s survey of hunters on baiting in 1993, 47% of those responding were opposed to baiting deer and 53% were in favor of continuing to allow baiting.

Zeckmeister said the percentage of hunters opposed to baiting increased in follow-up surveys since 1993, but continuing division on the issue among the public was enough to keep the DNR from implementing a ban even though discussion of the issue grew at wildlife conferences.

Ludwig said he was familiar with the 1993 survey as well, and in contrast to the Deer 2000 survey of 10,460 people, said it was a very small sampling of over 1000 people. He said even so, the percentage differences for the Deer 2000 were highly significant. He said if the DNR claims it had different results since the 1993 survey, it should make those results public to try to offset at least some of the loss in credibility it suffers by citing a survey with such a small sampling.

Ludwig said he has no problem with DNR personnel in the northern part of the state, but said the trouble with the DNR officials in Madison is they believe in Democracy only so long as it goes their way. He suggested eliminating many of the DNR positions in Madison as a way to help with the state’s financial crisis, saying the positions would not be missed.

He said it would not bother him one way or another if he never gets a chance to hunt deer over bait, but he wants to keep the opportunity to do so if he should so choose rather than having the DNR and its supporters make it impossible for him ever to do so. He also strongly objected to what he said were some hunters trying to ban the preferred hunting activity of others.

Saying he never will get involved again in a so-called public participation effort such as Deer 2000, he added Whitetails of Wisconsin, Quality Deer Management and the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association to Busalacchi’s list of organizations that those opposed to the ban should refuse to support because of their support of the DNR’s baiting and feeding ban.

Ludwig was in total agreement with those who said a baiting and feeding ban had been on the DNR’s agenda before the agency allegedly capitalized on the CWD issue as a convenient way to implement that agenda.

Decker also agreed that a feeding and baiting ban had been on the DNR’s agenda for some time, partly because of success by the DNR in Minnesota in imposing such a ban following problems with bovine tuberculosis in that state.

Zeckmeister, in his comments for The Herald article preceding the anti-ban meeting, cited problems in Michigan with the spread of bovine tuberculosis among deer that were attributed to feeding. He said there were concerns about the vulnerability of Wisconsin deer to bovine tuberculosis in connection with baiting and feeding, and to the possible spread of other diseases through the close contact between animals that he said occurs through baiting and feeding, before CWD was discovered in southern Wisconsin.

Although the organizers and members of the audience dismissed the danger of CWD in contrast to a number of other diseases to which much greater documented whitetail deer mortality has been attributed, none of them addressed the issues being raised by the DNR about the possible spread of other diseases through baiting and feeding.

Nor has Dr. James Kroll, director of the Institute for Whitetail Deer Management at Stephen Austin University, Nacogdoches, TX, addressed those issues in a video featuring him that was shown at the meeting or in comments to The Herald prior to the meeting.

One of the “Voices of Wisconsin” organizers at the meeting, Casey Edwards, attributed further comments to Kroll debunking the assumption that feeding of deer helps spread disease among them.

Edwards, responding to a comment by a member of the audience, said the audience member had a good point. The audience member had said that some wildlife biologists claims that the “bacteria” causing CWD is spread through nose-to-nose contact makes no sense in a northern Wisconsin deer feeding scenario.

Edwards said Kroll told him the situation as it existed in northern Wisconsin prior to the feeding ban was that the same deer were in constant contact with each other throughout the winter in small groups that regularly frequented the same feeding stations.

He said the alternative during a severe winter and without feeding, as identified by Kroll, was for deer to congregate in large numbers in deer yards, greatly increasing the numbers of nose-to-nose contacts between any disease-infected deer and healthy deer.

The meeting organizers contended that the reason for fewer numbers of hunting licenses and fewer deer hunters in northern Wisconsin for the 2002 season was not fear of possible human susceptibility to CWD as allegedly was being claimed in some quarters. The reason was the baiting ban, according to the meeting organizers.

Dr. Michael Hamm, a veterinarian from Park Falls, addressed the concern about the possibility of human susceptibility to the disease as might be harbored by some people. Citing infinitesimal chances of anyone in Park Falls getting any of the prion- caused diseases, he said that he as well as state veterinarian Julie Langenberg did not join in the concern about the disease that was being expressed in the media. He said he knows of no veterinarian joining in that concern.

He likened the DNR with “Chicken Little” and “the little boy who hollered wolf,” saying CWD was the acorn that hit Chicken Little (the DNR) on the head, causing the agency to think the sky was falling.

Comparing wild venison with meat from domestic animals, he said the venison is healthier for human consumption than meat from “USDA-inspected plants.”

Hamm also offered a side opinion on hunting, saying hunters like to call themselves sportsmen but that killing an animal is not sport. He said it is utilization of a resource.

The same point about the safety of venison as a food compared to meats available to consumers for purchase was made by Zeckmeister in his comments to The Herald prior to the meeting, and has been made by others with the DNR when commenting that the choice whether to eat venison is up to each individual.

Zeckmeister went further in his comments, saying that the issue of safety in eating meat in connection with animal diseases is a part of the long history of raising animals and poultry in confinement in feed lots and in close contact with other animals. He said the prevention and combating of disease in domestic animals is a huge expense in raising such animals for human consumption, suggesting that the closer the society comes to domesticating whitetail deer through congregating them by feeding, the more it will have to contend with disease.

The growing debate between wildlife biologists like Kroll who are the champions of people and interests who want to continue to feed deer, and wildlife biologists representing the Wisconsin DNR’s view, puts the wide segment of the public that has not yet taken sides in the difficult position of having to choose between the two.

Both the DNR wildlife biologists and wildlife biologists like Kroll are claiming theirs as the high road while arguing the need to rely more on science than politics, all the while engaging in politics in one way or another.

Both raise opposite “what if” specters. Kroll and the meeting organizers ask what if, after all the so-called hysteria over CWD, baiting and feeding ban, controversy, destruction of people’s livelihoods and damage to local economies, the disease turns out to be an insignificant problem.

DNR officials ask what if the fact little is known about CWD is used by the agency to justify ignoring it, and unique characteristics of the Wisconsin deer population turn out to make it so susceptible to the disease that it goes into an irreversible decline and becomes a perpetually unhealthy population.

The ban opponents argue that the DNR’s responsibility is to those being deprived of a form of recreation they enjoy and those presently suffering economic hardship from the ban.

The DNR insists that its responsibility is over a much longer term, to do all it can to insure a healthy deer population far into the future.

One of the organizers and member of the interim board of “Voices of Wisconsin,” Tim Zwetow of Washburn, sees that attitude by the DNR as treating the economic damage being done by the baiting ban as “collateral damage.”

Other organizers and members of the interim board attending the Park Falls meeting were Patti Rantala of Iron River and Todd Stittleburg of Black River Falls.

In introducing himself to the audience at the start of the meeting, Stittleburg said he had 16 years of experience in the deer feed and elk feed industry, and that he studied deer and elk diseases prior to going into the feeding business. He said he formerly worked for the largest feed company in the state.