The ban on baiting and feeding deer in Wisconsin was extended Thursday by a legislative panel swayed by fears that chronic wasting disease could wipe out the state’s deer herd.

Lawmakers pushed the current ban to April 1, showing some skepticism and reining back a request from the state Department of Natural Resources, which sought to keep the emergency rules in place until Sept. 1, 2003.

By the April 1 deadline, legislators expect that the DNR will have enough information from the 2002 deer hunt to determine whether the ban is necessary to keep chronic wasting disease from spreading throughout the state. Roughly 50,000 deer killed during the fall hunting seasons will be tested.

Before the unanimous vote to extend the ban, members of the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules weighed the economic losses being suffered by feed mill operators against the potential devastation of the tourism and hunting industries if the disease is not stopped.

“We’re trying to salvage an industry, and we’re doing everything we can,” said Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit). “We have one chance to control chronic wasting disease, and I think we need to ban baiting for now.”

Trying to Fight Disease

The Natural Resources Board imposed the ban in June as part of a set of emergency rules written to control the spread of the disease, which was first found in three deer shot near Mount Horeb.

It was the first time the always-fatal disease was discovered east of the Mississippi River. A total of 40 wild whitetail deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease in a 411-square-mile area of Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties.

To prevent the disease from spreading, the DNR is trying to kill all of the 25,000 deer in that eradication zone in southwestern Wisconsin and has extended hunting seasons around that area.

The ban on baiting and feeding was based on scientific theories that deer may spread the disease through saliva, feces or urine while congregating over food piles.

Opponents of the ban said the DNR is threatening their livelihood and the deer herd with an overreaching policy based more on speculation than science. Since the disease has not been found in wild deer outside the southwest portion of the state, they view the statewide ban as unnecessary and detrimental.

Greg Heyrman, co-founder of the group, Concerned Hunters of Wisconsin, said the prohibition on baiting will reduce the number of deer killed this season, particularly by bowhunters. Roughly 40% of archery hunters use bait to bring deer in for an effective kill, Heyrman said. About 17% of hunters using guns hunt over bait.

Heyrman presented the committee a petition with the signatures of 1,600 hunters who question the DNR policy and believe it will hurt the state’s deer herd.

Fears that chronic wasting disease may somehow afflict humans who consume venison have already reduced the number of hunters expected to head into the woods this season. That will reduce the overall kill, Heyrman said.

Mill Owners Concerned

Feed mill operators also were sharply critical of the ban, saying it will drive them out of business. Particularly in the northern part of the state, retailers who sell deer feed have seen sales plummet this fall.

Bernie Luedtke, of Seed ‘N’ Feed in Fifield, put his losses at $1,200 per day. Patti Rantala of Iron River said her family business has lost $30,000 already this fall. And Bill Schreiner of Rib Lake projected he would lose $250,000 for the year.

“These rules will put us out of our home and out of our business,” Rantala said, with her son, Matthew, looking on. “I feel if this rule doesn’t get struck today, then we might as well give the keys to our banker.”

Their pleas were countered by representatives from several statewide hunting organizations, who said the ban was an important tool to protect the deer herd and hunting for the future. If chronic wasting disease spreads unchecked and wipes out the deer herd, that would also wipe out a hunting industry that spreads nearly $1 billion throughout the state, they said.

DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell acknowledged that scientists do not know exactly how the disease is spread. But given what’s at stake, it’s imperative to err on the side of caution, he said.

“Our feeling is we need to keep the statewide ban in place until we know more about the spread of the disease,” Bazzell said. “We have to take every possible action we can to slow down and stop the transmission of the disease.”

Lawmakers Skeptical

Even though the legislators extended the ban, they expressed some skepticism at Bazzell’s arguments.

State Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) said the DNR and the media have greatly exaggerated the threat that chronic wasting disease poses to humans. He said the agency has long opposed baiting as a hunting practice and was using chronic wasting disease as a “dream disease” or “an opportunity” to end the practice.

Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Union Grove) said he also viewed the threat as vastly overstated. Gunderson said he would eat a deer infected with chronic wasting disease as long as he dressed and processed it himself.

There have been no documented cases of chronic wasting disease infecting humans. Leading scientists and medical organizations recommend, however, that humans not eat deer or cattle infected with the disease and not eat the brains, eyes or organs of any deer in an area where the disease exists.

Gunderson, who runs a sporting goods business, eventually cast his vote to extend the ban, based on the need to protect the deer herd.

“We have to do what’s right here and look at the big picture,” he said.

Heyrman said the panel ignored the “voice of the people” who will lose a chance to hunt and a large portion of their business.

“They totally dismissed everybody,” he said.

Tom Hauge, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the agency is not dismissing the harm that the ban is causing. The rules will help the DNR battle the disease, but the extension of the ban is not cause for any celebration, he said.

“There is nothing good about CWD, and this further cements that in my mind,” he said.