Tom Harelson, outgoing chief conservation warden for the Department of Natural Resources, believes the threat of fish and wildlife diseases – especially chronic wasting disease – is the the biggest challenge facing wardens today.

“The world of the warden will never be the same as before CWD was found in the wild deer herd February 28, or when CWD was found on a Wisconsin deer farm in Portage County September 18,” said Harelson, who plans to retire Nov. 15.

Those findings have caused wardens to move deer farms up to high priority. This fall wardens are inspecting the fencing on deer farms.

As of late October, wardens have inspected more than 140 whitetail deer farms in the state. The wardens first check for broken fencing around the property and require owners to repair any openings. They also look for any sick-looking deer, ask about escaped deer, and look at the farm records.

“There are a lot of good deer farmers out there who want to cooperate, but there are also others who don’t and we’ve had to serve search warrants and inspection warrants to obtain information on their deer,” Harelson said.

Rooting Out Contamination

Harelson said that wardens have found some deer farms that have released their deer, which is very frustrating. They found that 10 or more deer escaped from the Hirschboeck Farm in Walworth County, which had a deer that tested positive for CWD, and wardens are now shooting deer outside the fence.

Wardens have shot four deer outside, but near the fence, of which one had an ear tag. The four deer are being tested for CWD, but results are not yet available.

Harelson expects to see more quarantines of deer farms in Wisconsin, but said that the investigation is very difficult and wardens must use DNA to trace individual animals.

Harelson said that the DNR has more than 350 leads involving CWD in the wild deer herd near Mount Horeb and in deer farms. He expects that the two paths will cross at some point.

“It is absolutely our highest priority to protect wild deer from any further contamination,” he said. The DNR would like to see double fencing required if deer farms are not participating in the voluntary CWD monitoring program.

Harelson said wardens were continuing to receive complaints on illegal baiting and feeding of deer. A lot of people are complying with the new law, but hunters still report finding baited areas, and wardens follow up.

Problems Should Be Reported

He thinks the lack of baiting will make a more “level playing field” and may result in more movement of deer and hunters seeing more deer this fall.

Harelson has worked as a conservation warden for 29 years, and chief warden for the past six years.

“Overall, I think people care more about the resource than they ever did before,” he said. “Although the good have gotten better, the bad have gotten worse. Ten years ago we didn’t see the extent of thrill-killing wildlife or the amount of over-bagging, as we do now.”

Harelson encourages people to report problems to wardens and work together on solutions. People who care about natural resources should be involved, just as the professionals who are paid to work on it.

Some of the biggest problems wardens face is conflicts between different groups, such as fishermen and boaters or hunters and rural landowners, he said.

The DNR now has 209 conservation wardens, of which 153 are field wardens. But, in relation to the numbers of wardens per 1,000 hunters and fishermen, Harelson said, Wisconsin still ranks last out of the 50 states.

Harelson has moved the warden service into community wardening. The DNR requires wardens to work with the local community to identify and solve problems, which isn’t always issuing citations.

“With just 153 field wardens, it is imperative that we get the community to protect the resource,” Harelson said. “That’s been a proud history and tradition of the warden force.”