BARNEVELD, Wisconsin (Reuters) — In a gravel clearing beside the Eagle Mart Stop-N-Go gas station, about 20 men and a few women, some in flannel shirts and yellow rubberized coveralls, spent a recent weekend sawing the heads off hundreds of Wisconsin deer shot by hunters.
Hunting season began early in the hill country of southwest Wisconsin this year and will run late as the state launches an unprecedented effort to stamp out chronic wasting disease, a relative of mad cow disease that threatens Wisconsin’s massive population of whitetail deer.
“This is our chance to be able to eradicate this disease in this area and keep the deer herd healthy,” said Ruthe Badger, director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ South Central office. If it isn’t eradicated, statistical models project large numbers of deer will die.
Wisconsin announced its first cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in February from three deer shot during the 2001 hunting season. The diagnosis stunned wildlife officials because previously the nearest known cases were hundreds of miles west in western Nebraska.
First observed in Colorado in the 1960s, CWD, which affects deer and elk, had been confined until this year to the U.S. Rocky Mountains and Plains regions and parts of western Canada. Like mad cow disease, CWD is a fatal illness caused by misshapen proteins called prions that destroy the brain.
Unlike mad cow, CWD has never been proven to cause illness in humans or cattle. Still, the World Health Organization has advised against eating venison or any part of a deer that appears sick.
CWD is a particular concern in Wisconsin because the state’s deer population, estimated at 1.65 million head, is much larger and more dense than herds in the West, a factor that could hasten the disease’s spread. Furthermore, deer hunting is as close to the soul of Wisconsin as cheese, beer and the Green Bay Packers.
“For anybody who has grown up in Wisconsin, deer hunting is just a part of who we are,” Badger said.
It’s also a significant business. University of Wisconsin economist Richard Bishop estimates that hunters in Wisconsin spend $500 million a year on the sport, while the state Department of Natural Resources has estimated the annual “economic impact” of hunting in Wisconsin at $1.5 billion.
Hunters to play lead role If the specter of CWD were to trigger a drop-off in hunting, Wisconsin would lose both income and a critical means of controlling the deer population. Hunters harvest 450,000 to 500,000 Wisconsin deer a year, and they will play a lead role in the state’s plan to fight CWD.
Wisconsin intends to eliminate all the deer — some 25,000 whitetails — within a 411-square-mile “eradication zone” west of Madison where all 40 of the state’s CWD-positive wild deer have been found.
Planners admit the job may take several years, and it could be 20 years before the area’s deer herd rebounds. In the eradication zone, the hunting season that began in October will last more than three months until Jan. 31 instead of the traditional nine days. Hunters are allowed to shoot all the deer they want, provided they take a doe for every buck and submit the head of each deer for testing.
Wisconsin intends to test every deer killed in the zone for CWD. In addition, the plan calls for tests on roughly 500 deer from every other county in the state, for a total of 50,000 — about as many deer as the overall kill in Colorado each year.
“This will be the most intensive testing effort ever undertaken for a wildlife species,” Tom Hauge, chief of the department’s wildlife management bureau, said in a statement.
‘Im going to consume it’ Results from the opening weekend of the fall hunt suggest that deer hunters’ concern about CWD may have been overestimated. Even in the eradication zone, where the CWD infection rate is about 3 percent, many hunters opted to keep their deer for meat after contributing the heads for testing.
“Roughly 50 percent of the hunters are keeping their deer,” said Greg Matthews, a department regional public affairs manager.
Some shared the attitude of Duaine Hillenbrand, a trucker from Cross Points, Wisconsin, who planned to keep a deer he shot and registered at Black Earth during the opening weekend.
“Hell yes, I’m going to consume it,” Hillenbrand said. “If I’m going to kill it, I’m going to consume it.”