CWD efforts all but forgotten in new Wisconsin budget
MADISON, Wis. — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget doesn’t propose any new strategies to fight chronic wasting disease despite years of demands from his own party for more action.
The budget checks off a long list of other Democratic priorities, including legalizing marijuana. But it doesn’t devote any additional funding or call for any new approaches for researching or slowing CWD. In fact, the budget doesn’t mention the disease even once.
“That makes me a little bit sad,” said Jeff Schinkten, president of Whitetails Unlimited, a national deer conservation group based in Sturgeon Bay. “We’re disappointed there’s no money in there. I don’t like closing a blind eye to it. We’re just ignoring it. It’s frustrating.”
CWD affects deer’s brains, causing them to grow thin, act abnormally and eventually die. It was discovered in Wisconsin in 2001 near Mount Horeb.
The state DNR reacted by calling on hunters to kill as many deer in the area as possible to slow the disease’s spread. Hunters and landowners refused to buy in, saying there’s no need to kill so many deer. The DNR took so much criticism that the agency ultimately dropped the plan.
Wary of angering deer hunters and losing their votes, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker took a largely hands-off approach after he took office in 2011. The disease has since spread across the state. According to the DNR, 26 counties had at least one infected deer in the wild.
Democrats urged Walker to do more throughout his tenure. Walker did in early 2018 as he headed into the campaign season against Evers, adopting Democrats’ plan to force deer farms to upgrade fencing and ban hunters from moving deer carcasses out of CWD-affected counties, defined by the DNR as counties with an infection or counties within 10 miles of a county with an infection. According to the DNR, 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties qualify as affected. Republican lawmakers scrapped the carcass ban last fall, though, saying hunters were outraged at the restriction.
Evers didn’t stress outdoor issues and didn’t announce any CWD strategies during his campaign. Still, liberals had hoped he would attack CWD more aggressively than Walker.
“This season there’s reason for hope,” former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote in an article published in Isthmus, a Madison weekly newspaper, days into the November gun deer hunt. “With the election of Tony Evers, we can at least expect that our state will drop its current ‘see no evil’ policy and confront the problem … The Evers election has made this year’s hunt just a little more joyous.”
But the budget does nothing with the disease. Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said in an email Friday that the administration is waiting for the DNR to come up with a CWD plan.
“Based on conversations with agency staff, there was not a need for the governor to put forward a specific budget request on CWD for this biennium because the DNR is continuing to work on its analysis of what can be done,” she said.
DNR officials had no immediate comment. Bill Bruins, a member of the DNR’s board and a Walker appointee, noted that the DNR is in the middle of a four-year study on deer mortality and Evers and the agency should wait until that’s complete before making any decisions.
“Is (CWD) a concern to the department and to everybody? Absolutely,” Bruins said. “(But) that has to translate into what’s doable and what can be done. That’s what the study is going to help us determine.”
Republican Tom Tiffany, chairman of the state Senate’s sporting heritage committee, said he’s not surprised Evers “punted” on the disease. The state has spent millions trying to fight it to no avail, he said. But he plans to ask new DNR Secretary Preston Cole during a confirmation hearing this week if the agency has a long-term plan.
“I could take a real partisan line here and say this is a failure of the Evers administration, but these are difficult decisions,” Tiffany said. “We’re just not sure yet what is going to be effective. But they’ve got to come forward with a plan. We need leadership from the Department of Natural Resources and … the governor as well.”
Fred Clark, a former Democratic legislator whom Evers appointed the DNR board last week, was one of the more outspoken critics of Walker’s CWD strategy. He said he would have liked to have seen some CWD strategies in the budget but discussions about the disease are just beginning.
“It’s going to be a long road between here and seeing a budget passed,” Clark said.