Lawmakers vote to ease rules made to slow wasting disease

A legislative committee Thursday directed the state Department of Natural Resources to relax its ban on baiting and feeding deer – or risk a suspension of the controversial rules altogether.

The Natural Resources Board approved rules over the summer banning baiting and feeding as a tool to fight the spread of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin. Wildlife managers and scientists for the DNR said that laying out artificial quantities of food promoted transmission of the disease through nose-to-nose contact of the animals.

But the 10-0 vote of the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules was a victory for those who oppose the ban and was a setback for the DNR.

Opponents complained that an outright ban on feeding – and using food to attract deer during hunting – was heavy-handed and based on inconclusive science.

The committee voted to extend the ban until April 10 but demanded the Natural Resources Board amend its rules before then with these restrictions:

Baiting would be permitted during deer season in quantities of 2 gallons or less for every 40 acres, and only on land north of Highway 10. The highway runs midway through the state.

Feeding deer would be permitted across the state except in a 411-square-mile zone west of Madison where the disease is known to exist. Feeding would be limited to 2 gallons or less and within 100 yards of a house. There was concern about the DNR cracking down on retired people who just put out small amounts of feed to watch the wildlife, said Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), co-chairman of the committee.

“And baiting has become a common form of hunting in northern Wisconsin,” he said.

The baiting and feeding ban emerged as the most controversial aspect of the DNR’s fight against the deer disease.

The disease was discovered in February 2002, and since then, the DNR has overseen the most comprehensive plan in the country to kill deer and test for presence of the fatal disease. The disease attacks the brains of deer and eventually kills the animal.

Fears about the disease cast a pall over the 2002 deer hunting season – deer license sales fell 11%.

Grass-roots efforts

Opponents of the ban on feeding and baiting quickly started a pair of grass-roots organizations – Concerned Hunters of Wisconsin and Voices of Wisconsin. In recent weeks, Voices of Wisconsin has held meetings across northern Wisconsin, each drawing 300 to 500 people.

The ban was also an economic hardship for many feed dealers, especially in the north, opponents said.

“There are going to be some champagne corks popping,” said John Petty, executive director of the Wisconsin Agri-Service Association, which represents 450 grain, feed and farm supply businesses.

But Petty added, “There are some people who lost a whole lot of sales during this past deer season, and that money is never going to be recouped.”

Many hunters, especially archers, hated the baiting ban because it meant they couldn’t hunt over piles of corn to draw the animals close.

“It’ll make us be able to go out and harvest a lot more deer,” said Tom Halverson of Wauwatosa, co-founder of Concerned Hunters of Wisconsin.

“A lot of archers will come back and a lot of gun hunters,” said Halverson, noting that bowhunting licenses had dropped almost 20%.

The DNR’s Tom Hauge acknowledged that Thursday’s developments were a setback for the DNR.

“We had put a lot of thought into this,” said Hauge, director of wildlife management.

“I think the committee was trying to take into account other perspectives – other than animal health – and trying to strike a balance there.”

Hauge said that top DNR managers had not had a chance to discuss the action.

But Natural Resources Board member James Tiefenthaler Jr. of Waukesha said the committee was doing the right thing.

“My guess is that we will meet and try to accommodate the committee,” he said.

Tiefenthaler, who has opposed the measure from the start, said he wants the ban on baiting dropped statewide but agreed that there needs to be limits on the amount of feed that can be used.