Near the end of 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its draft plan for managing chronic wasting disease (CWD) over the next 10 years.
The state's Natural Resources Board has already endorsed one feature of the plan, agreeing in January to a statewide ban on deer baiting and feeding, and passing on that recommendation to the Legislature.
But Madison activist John Stauber, who's led the charge to get the state to see CWD as a human health risk, thinks the plan is doomed to fail.
"They don't know how to think out of the box, because they created the box," says Stauber of the DNR. "There's just not a fundamental, rational explanation for the DNR's game plan."
The "box" Stauber refers to is the DNR's Holy Grail of wildlife management: deer hunting. In essence, Stauber says, the DNR wants to keep deer hunting intact and deer hunting license sales high. Thus the DNR wants to show that CWD is under control, when in fact little is being done to contain it.
It's hard to see where Stauber is wrong. At its core, the 34-page plan admits the obvious: CWD is here to stay.
When CWD was first discovered here in 2002, the DNR repeatedly claimed it wanted to "eradicate" the always-fatal brain wasting disease. Thus it encouraged extra hunting, to eradicate the deer herd within infected areas.
But state deer hunters and landowners did not go along. Despite media reports of "intensive" hunting, the deer kill in and around the CWD hotspots in western Dane and eastern Iowa counties has remained pretty much where it was in the days before CWD.
Meanwhile, the disease is clearly making its way to other areas. The current CWD Management Zone is 8,800 square miles - and growing.
"When you look at the distribution of the disease," says Alan Crossley, the DNR's point man on CWD, "there's no disagreement that it has expanded or spread from wherever it was introduced."
Asked what mistakes the DNR made in its attempts to rid the state of CWD, Crossley can't come up with anything. After a while he says, "The social and the political realities are that people don't want to see dramatically fewer deer out there. And people have not believed that this disease is something they should be concerned about."
Likewise, the DNR's draft management report finds no fault with past actions.
"At the time Wisconsin initiated efforts to control CWD in 2002, the goal was to eliminate the disease from the state," the report reads. "This was an ambitious goal, and it was not known at that time whether it was going to be possible to achieve that goal."
"Ambitious"? Maybe "unrealistic" is more accurate. At any rate, the state has spent well over $30 million on CWD testing and management, without doing much of anything to stop its spread.
Maybe it's the wrong approach.
The DNR sidesteps such pesky questions by setting a new goal: keeping CWD limited to current areas of infection. How? Continued hunting, more testing and the aforementioned statewide ban on deer baiting and feeding.
But all of these strategies have been proven ineffective.
The DNR has banned baiting and feeding throughout most of southern Wisconsin since 2002. That hasn't stopped the disease from spreading.
To date, the DNR has tested more than 150,000 deer for CWD. As of January 2009, 1,114 cases of CWD have been found, including 127 in the 2008 sampling.
"It's ironic, reading the DNR's report," says Stauber. "Their magic bullet now is quick identification of the disease, so they can jump on any hotspots before they really become [new] problem areas. But you can't begin to figure out where those so-called emerging areas might be, unless you have extensive testing."
The DNR's new plan requires statewide CWD testing every five years. Any deer showing possible CWD signs, like drooling or disorientation, will also be tested. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of CWD testing will be done in the one place the DNR's absolutely sure the disease is found - the 19-county CWD Management Zone.
"We're doing as much as we think we can do to keep looking for the disease, with the resources we have," says Crossley. "If we have more resources, we want to do more intensive sampling right along the periphery of the current disease [zones]. If we had unlimited resources, we'd probably do more testing. But it's expensive."
Science has yet to definitively answer whether people can get a deadly brain disease from eating CWD-infected deer. The question hangs over the whole Wisconsin deer hunting (and eating) community.
"While it looks like it might be hard to transmit [CWD] to humans, that possibility is still there," says Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. Scientists have been able to infect human brain materials with CWD. On the other hand, mice genetically altered to mimic humans apparently aren't susceptible.
CWD had been in Colorado and Wyoming deer and elk for a couple decades. But Wisconsin's CWD marked the first time the disease had appeared in a high-density white-tailed deer herd. Many hunters suddenly wanted their deer tested, especially since CWD is in the family of diseases that includes mad cow disease. (Mad cow beef has apparently infected, and killed, over 100 people in Great Britain and Europe.)
A fast test for CWD could tell whether a specific deer is infected. Actually, a couple such tests already exist, but Hansen says the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stopped private companies from offering them to the public.
Stauber thinks the concern is that positives outside of the CWD zone might upset hunters and hunting. But he argues that widely available fast tests would actually help preserve deer hunting, as hunters would have confidence in the safety of their deer.
As Isthmus has reported in past, some hunters have gotten news of CWD-positive animals after they'd begun eating their deer. Indeed, as of late January 2009, the DNR still had over 1,000 deer samples not yet tested, out of nearly 13,000 samples taken in 2008.