Madison – Sharpshooters may be enlisted in a state campaign to thin deer herds in suburbs in southeastern Wisconsin to stave off the spread of chronic wasting disease, under a proposal unveiled Wednesday.

Because of infected wild deer found in Kenosha and Walworth counties, wildlife biologists are worried about the possibility that the deadly disease has spread. So under a plan proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday, the deer population in about half of Waukesha, Racine, Kenosha and Jefferson counties as well as all of Walworth County would be reduced to a goal of 10 to 15 deer per square mile.

That would greatly expand the current chronic wasting disease zones from southwest and south central Wisconsin – areas in or near the outbreak spot close to Mount Horeb, where the DNR is trying to kill as many deer as possible.

Public hearings will be held March 16 to 18 in nine communities in the current and proposed zones, including Pewaukee, Jefferson, Kansasville, Portage and Mount Horeb.

Reducing the herd in mostly rural Iowa County and trimming the deer population in mostly urban Waukesha and Racine counties will be a challenge, admitted Tom Hauge, director of the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. Until now, the agency has dealt mostly with private landowners and overseen hunting at state parks such as Governor Dodge, Blue Mounds and Tower Hill.

“In the southeastern part of the state, you have more landscape that may not be open to hunting because it’s urban and there are subdivisions,” Hauge said after a Natural Resources Board meeting. “We’ll have to use some different approaches.”

Sharpshooters could be enlisted

Killing deer in suburbs will likely involve sharpshooters as well as other methods, Hauge said. And instead of landowners, the DNR will have to work with a number of municipalities.

“I’m sure we’ll find some concern. But two years into chronic wasting disease management, the public is more knowledgeable. We still have limited management – there’s no vaccine” for the disease, Hauge said.

After public hearings, the DNR will return to the Natural Resources Board in April to request adoption of changes in the chronic wasting disease zones as well as other rules regarding the length of hunting seasons and the types of tags to be used.

One proposed change would give the DNR the ability to require hunters to donate the heads of their deer for testing. If hunters refuse, they could be cited, said Kurt Thiede, DNR wildlife regulations specialist.

All deer killed in the chronic wasting disease zones are tested, but elsewhere deer samples were donated on a voluntary basis. However, in some counties biologists had difficulty encouraging people to test their deer.

“We’ve really had a problem getting enough samples,” said Bill Vander Zouwen, DNR section chief for wildlife ecology.

Spending criticized

At Wednesday’s Natural Resources Board meeting, board members complained that most of the millions of dollars spent on chronic wasting disease are coming from license fees paid by hunters and anglers.

Board member Herbert Behnke said it wasn’t fair that the license fees, which normally are spent on natural resources, are instead going toward testing and eradication of the deer herd in the outbreak area.

“We cannot afford to let all our natural resources dollars go down the drain” to pay for chronic wasting disease, Behnke said.

Hauge said the DNR has spent more than $15 million since the disease was discovered in Wisconsin in February 2002. All but $1 million of that was from license fees. In the fiscal year that started July 1, $3.5 million has been spent, including $655,000 to dispose of carcasses and $314,000 on testing.

As the DNR has directed money toward chronic wasting disease, the agency has reduced pheasant stocking and cut back on habitat management while keeping wildlife biologist vacancies open, Hauge said.

An attempt last year by the DNR to raise license fees to help pay for chronic wasting disease efforts was shot down by the Legislature. The Joint Finance Committee scaled back Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget proposal to boost fees, deciding to leave resident deer hunting licenses unchanged at $20, instead of $32. Resident fishing and small game licenses increased by $2 and $3, less than what the DNR wanted.

Sen. Bob Welch (R-Redgranite) said chronic wasting disease funding is a high priority for legislators, but there wasn’t much leeway in a budget that faced a $3 billion shortfall. And at a time when fewer people were buying deer hunting licenses because of fears about the deadly disease, Welch said it didn’t make sense to raise fees.

Welch, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said lawmakers will work on budgeting money for chronic wasting disease that doesn’t take cash from wildlife programs.

“That’s a legitimate point that Mr. Behnke raises – that a major portion (of chronic wasting disease funding) shouldn’t fall on the backs of hunters,” Welch said. “It’s a public health matter that falls on everyone in Wisconsin.”

DNR Secretary Scott Hassett said the agency is already working on a funding proposal for the 2005-’07 budget that would include hunting and fishing license fee increases. He said the DNR hasn’t determined how much of a license fee boost it will ask the governor to include in his budget.

“We didn’t get what we wanted the last time, but we did get encouraging comments from legislators to raise fees by smaller increments,” Hassett said.