ROCK FALLS — Members of the Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team moved quickly through their July 16 orders of business, making, seconding and passing unanimously a motion culminating their year and a half of effort after an Eau Claire County deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Earlier that evening, the Advisory team was presented with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Secretary’s Director Award for External Service.

“Of all the groups we’ve worked with in the last year, I couldn’t think of one that has done more selflessly to help further the department’s mission,” said Dan Baumann, the DNR’s secretary’s director in the West Central Region. “They represent all the hunters and the people who care about natural resources in their counties.”

The Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team — made up of representatives of County Deer Advisory Councils for Eau Claire, Buffalo, Chippewa, Dunn, Pepin and Trempealeau counties — was formed in response to the CWD positive wild deer that was discovered in Eau Claire County in March of 2018. The purpose of the team is to serve as an advisory body to the Department regarding local CWD surveillance and management, according to the DNR.

The Advisory Team’s recommendation — made at their July 16 meeting — was to require chronic wasting disease testing of deer killed in parts of Eau Claire, Dunn and Pepin counties during the nine-day gun-deer season in November; require in-person deer registration for the first three days of the nine-day gun season; and continue surveillance permits available from Sept. 1 to March 1 in an focus area that would be expanded from the 2018 area.

Those recommendations, DNR officials said, would allow the Department to get closer to their goal of testing 600 deer, a number that would allow the DNR to estimate the prevalence of the disease in the area.

On Sept. 3, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced it would implement the Advisory Team’s recommendations and require hunters in six west-central Wisconsin towns to have their deer tested for chronic wasting disease during the entire nine-day gun deer season.

“The approach that we are taking is a prime example of the department working closely with citizens and the hunting community to address the challenges associated with the spread of CWD,” DNR Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs said in a news release. “We must all work together to stop the spread of this deadly disease and are therefore following the citizens’ lead in this area.”

Then plans changed.

Following the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board’s September meeting, the DNR said Oct. 2 that “following additional consideration and recommendations from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board,” mandatory in-person registration and sampling within a five-town area covering parts of Eau Claire, Dunn and Pepin counties will not be required of hunters during the Nov. 23-Dec. 1 gun deer season.

Instead, testing would again be voluntary.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board is the policy-setting body for the Department of Natural Resources. All rule proposals, land acquisitions, property management master plans and budget proposals from department staff must be approved by the board before advancing for legislative or gubernatorial review and approval.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board’s move drew strong rebuke from members of the Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team during the group’s Oct. 29 meeting. The Advisory Team voted unanimously to send a letter expressing their “disgust” with the NRB’s decision to make CWD testing voluntary in the area.

“We laid our case out at the meeting in July and advanced a plan that made sense, and here we are, getting slapped in the face,” said Mark Noll, Advisory Team member from Buffalo County. “The Board has been gutless in this CWD fight. The Legislature stripped the DNR of scientists, so we don’t have the science that we should have. It almost seems like there’s a clandestine effort going on against those who want to do what’s right for the resource.”

“We were a front-runner on this. We thought we were doing something,” said Al Brown, Chippewa County representative on the Advisory Team. “I’ve been (involved in CWD research) for 15 years, and we haven’t made any progress.”

Advisory Team Chairman Dave Zielke of Eau Claire said invitations to attend the Oct. 29 Chippewa Valley CWD Advisory Team meeting were sent to DNR Secretary Preston Cole and Natural Resources Board members Frederick Prehn, Greg Kazmierski, Julie Anderson, William Bruins, Terry Hilgenberg and Bill Smith.

“I’m hoping that in the future, they can hear from us what our views are and what we want to do to support this, as opposed to them just making assumptions,” Zielke said.

Kazmierski, whose “Chronic Wasting Disease Subcommittee Report” states, “CWD is being used to move political agendas, seek funding, further anti-hunting agendas, run deer farmers out of business and as an excuse for deer population reduction ...,” put forth the directive to eliminate mandatory CWD testing at the NRB meeting, Noll said.

“The way I see this is Kazmierski is scared to do any more because he thinks people will be scared to buy a license or scared to eat a deer. I think there’s some fear factor that we won’t be able to sell licenses,” said Bob Thoma, Advisory Team member from Trempealeau County. “I don’t know any other reason he would have for not wanting to have us testing. And we have not received a reason. If we’re willing to give our time, I think they should be willing to give us a solid reason as to why not.”

The goal of proposing mandatory CWD testing was to get a scientifically adequate sample size to make a reasonable assessment of the percentage of deer affected by the disease. Voluntary testing last year resulted in the DNR testing 238 deer, short of their goal of 310 for the surveillance area. Assuming a 1 percent disease prevalence, that goal would have given the DNR more than 90 percent confidence in detecting the disease in the surveillance area and just under 50 percent in the focus area, but was still short of what the Department would need to estimate the number of infected individuals.

“Part of the problem we’re facing is (the belief that a problem with CWD) doesn’t exist,” said Al Marotz, Dunn County’s Advisory Team representative. “We’ve got people believing that chronic wasting disease isn’t here, let’s not get worried about it. We have hunters believing it’s just going to run its course and go away.

“We have to stay on track and keep CWD in the forefront and keep educating people. It’s not going to go away; it’s only going to get worse.”

Throughout the early going of 2019 deer hunting seasons, the DNR has collected 12 samples to be tested for CWD in the surveillance area, with the new goal being a total of 300 samples through all seasons.

“We have the main time when we’re killing a lot of deer in front of us, with the rut and the gun season coming,” said DNR Wildlife Biologist Mark Rasmussen. “Hopefully with that, we’ll get much closer to that goal. We very much need hunters’ assistance to reach those sampling goals.”

CWD is a contagious neurological disease of deer, elk and moose that is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. These prions cause brain degeneration in infected animals and lead to extreme weight loss, abnormal behavior and loss of bodily functions. Testing for CWD can only be performed after the animal’s death.

The DNR will have a network of CWD cooperators and self-serve kiosks available for hunters throughout the fall, and Rasmussen said DNR staff will be conducting some in-person sampling on the opening weekend of the gun deer season from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Rock Creek Town Hall in Rock Falls, Welcome Matt Bar in Eau Claire and Cleghorn School Park in Cleghorn.

“That’s when the vast majority of deer are going to come in. That’s when folks are getting out of the woods after shooting hours,” Rasmussen said. “If we can get these deer tested, it will greatly help us in our efforts to determine what the extent of CWD on the landscape and inform the (Advisory Team) as we move forward making decisions about CWD.”

The DNR offers free testing for CWD. Information and sampling locations can be found at www.dnr.wi.gov by searching “CWD sampling.”

“We’re trying to find out what we’re dealing with here, and we really, really, deeply needed to have test results,” Noll said. “You get one really good swing at this CWD when you have an outbreak, and we might have missed ours.”