MADISON, Wis. -- Democrats on the Wisconsin Assembly's natural resources committee demanded this week that state wildlife officials step up the fight against chronic wasting disease, tearing the scab off a bitter decade-old debate over how best to handle the fatal brain ailment.
They criticized the Department of Natural Resources during a Wednesday hearing on deer management for bowing to public pressure to quit trying to reduce the deer herd in hopes of slowing the disease's spread.
"At some point ... you need to suck it up and deal with it," committee member Chris Danou, D-Trempeleau, told DNR officials. "The passive approach just isn't going to work. Just because some people are griping, we're going to let it spread? What are we going to do? Just watch it happen?"
CWD produces microscopic holes in cervids' brain tissue, causing weight loss, tremors, strange behavior and eventually death. The disease was first detected in Wisconsin near Mount Horeb in 2002. The discovery sent a shock wave through the state, known around the world for its deer-hunting traditions.
The DNR's reaction remains a sore spot among hunters. The agency immediately adopted a plan that called for reducing the local herd to slow the disease's spread, employing sharpshooters and asking hunters and landowners to kill as many deer as possible in the area.
The strategy turned into a public relations disaster. Landowners and hunters refused to get on board, calling herd reduction unattainable and a waste of deer. A 2006 audit found the number of deer in the area had actually increased.
The DNR has since turned to a strategy of testing dead deer for the disease, tracking the disease's locations and gauging its prevalence. Texas deer researcher James Kroll backed up those tactics in a 2012 review of Wisconsin DNR policies he produced for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, saying the state should take a passive approach.
Tami Ryan, the Wisconsin DNR's wildlife health section chief, told the Assembly's natural resources committee that the disease continues to spread, noting that 20 percent of bucks and 9 percent of does in the Mount Horeb area now have it. The disease zone has grown to include southeastern Wisconsin, she said, adding that the agency has recorded localized outbreaks in the state's northwestern and central regions.
"We continue to see the disease increase in intensity and geographic distribution," she said. "We have not been able to contain the disease."