Wisconsin is taking aim to control deer disease

MILWAUKEE — Aircraft and helicopters could be used to shoot deer to control the spread of chronic wasting disease in a 287-square-mile area of southern Wisconsin, officials said yesterday.

Officials also mapped out plans for killing more deer in a broader area outside of where diseased deer have been found to date.

And there are plans to test as many as 20,000 deer this year — but only if laboratories can be outfitted properly to do the work.

Wisconsin officials were quick to say an aerial assault would be a last resort if hunters were unable to kill 14,000 to 15,000 deer in a "hot zone" — a hilly mix of forest and cropland where 14 deer have tested positive for the fatal brain condition, the deer version of "mad-cow" disease.

Authorities want to remove the deer within a year.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other agencies are hoping that landowners, and hunters they allow on their land, will be able to wipe out virtually the entire population of deer in portions of western Dane, eastern Iowa and southern Sauk counties to contain the disease.

On public land, such as Blue Mound State Park, officials are considering sharpshooters.

In addition, the traditional nine-day November hunting season in the area will be expanded to October through January.

Outfitted with night-vision goggles and using floodlights to attract deer, sharpshooters from the DNR and other government agencies also could be called on to work on private land with the owners' consent, the DNR said.

The stakes of the project are tremendously high in Wisconsin, where deer hunting is a vital part of the state's culture and sporting heritage and contributes more than $1 billion to its economy. There are more than 1 million deer in the state, and licenses generate nearly $25 million a year for the state.

There is a growing fear that the disease could decimate the deer herd if it goes unchecked. Farmers and others are concerned that it could jump species and infect livestock. Further, a big outbreak could frighten away sportsmen, wary of eating venison infected with the disease.

"The two biggest things in Wisconsin are the Packers and deer hunting," said Janice Abram, a hunter from Arena, inside the eradication zone. "This is just devastating."

If aircraft were used, the state would follow a "very scripted scenario" in which sharpshooters and pilots first would fly on dry runs. Landowners would have to agree to the flights, and precautions would have to be taken to keep people out of the area, said Tom Hauge, the DNR's director of wildlife management.

"Safety would be the No. 1 job," he said.

Colorado wildlife officials have used aircraft to control the spread of chronic wasting disease there.

"I think it's (aircraft) a tool that has to be considered," said state Sen. Dale Schultz, a member of the Senate Environmental Resources Committee who owns farmland in a part of south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.

Schultz's concern: Some landowners may be reluctant to let people hunt on their land, making the job of killing enough deer to control the disease that much harder.

"We have a long way to go to educate the public, and we have little time to do it," he said after attending a public meeting on the matter Wednesday night in Mount Horeb. "We can't afford to get bogged down in property-rights disputes."

The Mount Horeb meeting — the first in a series of statewide meetings — attracted about 2,000 people.

"For us to be successful, we need landowners to lighten up restrictions," the DNR's Bill Vander Zouwen told the crowd Wednesday.

The DNR could start handing out permits to hunt deer to landowners near Mount Horeb next week.

Wisconsin was the first state east of the Mississippi River to have deer that tested positive for the neurological disease.

So far, chronic wasting has turned up in wild deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska and in captive elk in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Saskatchewan in Canada.

There is no evidence that the disease can infect humans.

Information from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.