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When Brad Hasheider shot a 10-point buck during Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer hunting season in November, he had the deer tested for chronic wasting disease.

While waiting for results from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the rural Sauk City man went ahead and butchered the animal.

A few weeks later, Hasheider learned the four-year-old deer he harvested had CWD, but he already had decided the meat would end up on the family's dinner table.

“There’s really no link between CWD and transferring to humans,” Hasheider said. “Is it possible? We don’t know.”

On its website, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection states there is "no strong evidence" that CWD can be passed to humans, but warns hunters to minimize contact with the brain, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes when processing deer.

Hasheider said he follows the guidelines closely.

“We cut the meat off the bones and don’t touch the bone marrow, brain or organs,” Hasheider said. “We’ve eaten positive deer before. It’s a personal decision.”

No case has ever been documented of a person becoming sick from eating the meat of a deer infected with CWD. However, when it comes to the disease that has spread across the deer herds in some of the most popular hunting areas in Wisconsin, including the south-central part of the state, even experts find there frequently are more questions than answers.

Decade of research

It has been 13 years since chronic wasting disease was discovered in Wisconsin.

In the years since, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has dramatically changed the way it manages and responds to the spread of the illness.

CWD is believed to be a transmissible illness of the nervous system caused by unusual infectious agents known as prions. The disease is incurable and fatal for infected deer.

Despite efforts to reduce the spread of the disease, its prevalence has not diminished. More sick deer appear each year, although the spread has been slow, and somewhat contained.

The disease is primarily in the south central part of the state, and has continued to have the highest prevalence in Iowa and Dane counties, where it was first discovered in 2002. It has since spread to Sauk and Richland counties. Limited portions of the herds in Juneau and Columbia counties have been found to be infected as well.

The DNR began monitoring the state's wild white-tailed deer for CWD in 1999. After the first positive tests, fears erupted that one of the state’s most treasured resources and a hunting culture that has developed around it was at risk of being changed forever. The economic impact on tourism was predicted to be significant, and the risk to hunters who ate deer from infected meat was unknown.

The DNR estimates deer hunting generates more than $500 million dollars in retail sales annually and over $1 billion for the state's economy.

Since those early years, research and a management plan have helped reduce fear associated with the disease, but its growth remains troubling.

Reduced testing

The fight against CWD met a new challenge this year as the state unveiled a new Electronic Harvest Registration System for deer registration.

In a video released by Gov. Scott Walker and DNR Secretary Kathy Stepp touting the new electronic registration system, no mention of CWD sampling or testing was made.

Prior to 2015, the DNR operated or contracted with local businesses to open registration stations, gathering places where hunters physically brought in their deer for registration. Testing for CWD also was offered. 

Now hunters who register their kill online must find a place to get their deer tested for CWD, and fewer locations offer the service. The changes have led fewer hunters to take the extra step in getting their deer tested.

“Our sampling numbers have seen a downward trend,” said DNR wildlife health section chief Tami Ryan. “The more samples you’re able to collect, the better the chances of finding additional areas of CWD.”

Ryan said the 2015 hunting season began with half the CWD testing budget the agency had the year before, and enough resources to analyze tissue from 4,000 carcasses, down from 7,500 in 2014. Ultimately, the DNR collected 2,023 samples in 2015, the fewest collected since 5,300 were tested in 2011. In 2002, the state tested 40,000 deer.

CWD growing

Despite fewer tests, the DNR's research shows the disease is slowly spreading.

Since 2002, CWD prevalence within the state's western monitoring area, which includes Iowa County, has shown an overall increasing trend in both sexes and all age groups.

During the past 13 years, the trend in disease prevalence in adult males has risen from eight percent to more than 25 percent, and in adult females from about four percent to more than 10 percent.

During the same time, the prevalence trend in yearling males has increased from about two percent to eight percent, and in yearling females from about two percent to seven percent.

DNR funding to monitor, study and combat the disease has declined significantly.

“We’re not hearing a lot about CWD anymore,” Ryan said. “It was quite the topic in the early years, but now it’s part of the landscape. There are still people out there concerned about CWD and the agency has a mutual desire on behalf of our citizens to have a healthy deer herd. There will be continued interest in monitoring and knowing where the disease exists and to what level.”

There also are indications the disease is spreading to areas beyond those with high concentrations of CWD, such as Dane and Iowa counties.

Ryan said Juneau, Adams and Columbia counties are considered a “fringe area” for CWD, with a limited number of positive tests in those areas.

“That first positive is an indicator,” Ryan said. “Once that’s been identified, we transform into disease assessment. It’s a slowly progressive disease and complicated and complex as to how it’s transmitted in the environment."

Research declining

While the prevalence of CWD slowly grows, financial support for CWD research at both the state and federal level has declined.

According to the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau, $4 million was budgeted for CWD in 2002. That rose to $32.3 million in the 2005-06 budget.

The budget primarily was supported by state hunting license revenues and funds from federal taxes on hunting equipment.

The most recent DNR biennium budget proposal that mentions CWD was for 2013-15 and included no additional expenditures on the disease, instead calling for unspent funds remaining in the account to be used.

Ryan said decreases in funding for CWD have led to no new funding for research of the disease beyond what remains in the state’s budget.

“We don’t have the USDA funding stream that went to CWD, and Sen. Herb Kohl earmarked funding for CWD in the early years when it was first detected in Wisconsin, but now we’re completely dependent on what we have in state funding,” Ryan said.

Budget cuts at the DNR also have drawn criticism from some outdoors groups. As part of the 2015 state budget, 18 DNR scientist positions were eliminated.

The Conservation Congress – a group of hunters, fishermen and outdoors enthusiasts that gathers annually to weigh in on proposed DNR rules – passed a resolution in April 2015 opposing the cuts.

Dan Schmidt has been the editor of Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine for 22 years, and has been a vocal opponent of the changes at the DNR, saying the decisions are political and not based in science or an effort to resolve lingering CWD issues.

“Walker has absolutely gutted that department since he’s taken office,” Schmidt said in a telephone interview. “His latest budget cut out the last two remaining scientific positions for deer research. There’s no one minding the store and no way to fund it. There’s less testing going on now. It’s a shell of talking heads with nothing being accomplished. There’s nothing to stop the spread of CWD or reduce it.”

A doctor’s prescription

For a decade, the state's official strategy was to eradicate infected herds of deer in certain zones. In 2012, the state shifted to a more "passive management" style.

That was the word used to describe the recommendation of the governor-appointed deer trustee James Kroll of Texas, a scientist of and professor emeritus of forest wildlife management hired in 2011 to study CWD and make a management recommendation.

Kroll heads up the Doctor Deer firm of three consultants that have addressed deer herd management for 40 years.

The firm’s hiring was part of a $2 million CWD budget approved in 2011, of which $125,000 was earmarked for consultants.

Kroll said his payment was less than $100,000 based on his travel and other incidental expenses. His contract expired in 2012, but he continues to keep an eye on the state's deer management.

Kroll said he recognizes the term “passive management” has been the subject of criticism.

“The people who don’t like that recommendation call it ‘doing absolutely nothing,’ and that’s not what it means” Kroll said. “The eradication zone was unsuccessful. It just didn’t work. The recommendation we had was to go with a strategy of containment. Treat it like a wildfire and try to contain it.”

He said once the disease is found in an area, eradication is impossible.

“If you eradicate all the deer, the prion still can exist in the soil,” Kroll said. “Do you haul out all the soil in southern Wisconsin? I defy anyone to come up with an alternative management strategy."

He also said there is no correlation between declines in the state's deer herd and CWD.

“There’s been no credible scientific study that demonstrated any deer heard has declined from CWD,” Kroll said. “The National Wildlife Federation said the national mule deer population was declining, and CWD was way down on the list. The number one reason was a viral disease from gnats.”

Kroll said he also questions whether CWD is as contagious as once believed.

He used an example from a deer breeding facility in Texas where a deer tested positive for CWD. It was among four deer at that facility that were produced by artificial insemination.

“Their mothers, their sisters and the other deer in the pens with them did not have CWD,” Kroll said. “They were all raised in the same pen and from the same sire, and the sire didn’t have CWD.”

Kroll said more CWD research is needed.

“The point needs to be made we still don’t know what the conditions are that create this disease,” Kroll said. “Research has been focused on doing experiments to see if prions can be transmitted. We don’t know what really creates them. The actual cause is not the prions. When it comes to what created the prions, that research is very lacking.”

Kroll said new studies should focus on genetics, environment and nutritional aspects of wild deer.

Hasheider, who chose to eat the meat of an infected deer despite the positive CWD test, said he supports a containment approach, and believes that's what most hunters want.

“From what I’ve seen, when CWD is not in your area, like Juneau or Adams county, you want restrictions on it because you don’t want it where you are,” Hasheider said. “Once it’s there you learn to go with it. Nobody wants to kill every deer. I think you want to keep the deer population in check and shoot enough to keep the population rotating.”

News reporter, Capital Newspapers