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Deer hunters urged to use extra caution during COVID-19 pandemic
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EAU CLAIRE — Wisconsin’s deer hunting tradition, like so many other aspects of life, will be different in 2020.

At least that’s the hope of public health and natural resources officials with the state’s annual nine-day gun deer season about to start amid a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the season set to kick off on Saturday, hunters are being asked to follow COVID-19 safety protocols even as they stalk their trophy bucks.

“We want everyone to get out and enjoy the season,” said Kris Johansen, regional wildlife management supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources. “But just as we’ve grown accustomed to this year with everything being different, deer season is going to have a little different flavor this year.”

Staff file photo by Dan Reiland  

Hunters will be stalking deer as usual during the state’s nine-day gun deer season beginning Saturday, but public health and natural resources officials are urging hunters to follow COVID-19 safety protocols this year. This buck was spotted in the town of Seymour in November 2017.

Yes, that means hunters, just like everyone else in Wisconsin, are urged to wear masks when they are near other people, keep 6 feet away from others, wash their hands frequently and avoid gathering with individuals from outside their households.

While those safety measures shouldn’t pose a problem for hunters while they are out in the woods, the challenge could come between hunting sessions.

That’s when many hunters traditionally retreat to deer camps, where they gather in close quarters to share food and drink, swap stories and make memories. Unfortunately, this year that’s also when officials say hunters could be most at risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.

“The deer hunting season is proceeding as normal, but we’re reminding hunters that COVID-19 is at the forefront and asking them to do their part to stop the spread,” Johansen said.

After seeing nearly 3,800 people sickened and 42 die from COVID-19 in just her county, Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman is extremely concerned that deer hunting could make a bad situation worse.

She pleaded with hunters to follow the familiar safety guidelines, especially in deer camps.

“I understand deer hunting is a huge tradition, almost a holiday, in Wisconsin, and it’s important for people to get outside and do things they enjoy,” said Weideman, who comes from a hunting family. “This doesn’t mean they can’t see other people, but they need to stay 6 feet away from each other.”

For hunters who choose to gather, ideally they will prepare their own food, use their own utensils and maintain social distancing even while eating, she said.

Some hunters unwilling to give up deer camp completely may come up with their own solutions. Johansen said he has spoken to hunters who plan to skip the family cabin, arrange for separate households to bring their own campers and maintain physical distancing when socializing.

Matt Schneider of Chippewa Falls, perhaps influenced by his role as regional communications manager for Marshfield Clinic Health System, is one of those hunters who is heeding the advice of public health officials and changing his treasured hunting traditions because of the pandemic.

“I have had to miss Christmas, Thanksgiving and other family functions over the years, but I have always made it home for deer hunting” — until this year, Schneider said. “Knowing and seeing the crisis we are in, and the stress our frontline health care workers are under, my wife and I agreed staying home and to ourselves this year is our way of doing our part to help bend the curve.”

While the decision not to join his wife’s family on 50 acres of prime hunting land in Mount Horeb was difficult, Schneider won’t miss out on the hunting season entirely, as he and his oldest daughter, Emma, found a place to hunt locally and plan to use technology to stay connected and share experiences this year, Schneider said.

Meanwhile, his wife and youngest daughter will keep their “hunting season” tradition alive by making cookies and sharing time with relatives using video chat technology.

“It will be different and we will adapt, but we won’t let COVID take away our family traditions,” Schneider said. “The trade-off is worth it to us.”

Jess Carstens, DNR area wildlife supervisor, said the pandemic will alter hunting season for a lot of people in 2020.

“We’ve never tried to hold a deer season with a worldwide health crisis going on,” Carstens said, noting that the season will start at a time when COVID-19 cases and deaths are setting records at the local, state and national levels.

In addition to promoting safety protocols, state officials are urging people to stick close to home and hunt with individuals from their own household as much as possible.

“Wisconsin is in crisis — our case numbers are rising and our hospitals are strained,” Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said in a news release. “Each of us must do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19. Limiting your interactions with people outside your household is a key step, so we ask hunters to reduce their travel and to hunt with people you live with.”

CWD

Chronic wasting disease continues to be a concern regarding the state’s deer herd, and the DNR once again will collect deer heads for testing.

Managing CWD begins with knowing where the disease exists on the landscape, and that knowledge is only possible with robust sample numbers provided by hunters, Johansen said.

CWD is a contagious, fatal 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.

While the agency is seeking samples from several parts of the state, it is a high priority to test deer from a surveillance area southwest of Eau Claire where seven CWD-positive wild deer have been identified in the past few years.

That area is comprised of the towns of Pleasant Valley, Brunswick, Washington and Drammen in Eau Claire County, the town of Rock Creek in Dunn County and the town of Albany in Pepin County. Self-service kiosks for sample collection are set up at all of those respective town halls and generally are more widely available this year to limit personal contact with others.

“We’ve had positive detections there and we want to try to remove as many potentially infected deer from that area as possible to help stop the spread,” Carstens said, pointing to how CWD gets passed along in places where deer are in close proximity to each other, much the way COVID-19 spreads among humans.

Deer herd

When it comes to the quest for deer, hunters in west-central Wisconsin should encounter healthy deer populations.

“We have ample opportunities to harvest not only a buck, but antlerless deer as well,” Johansen said, citing an uptick in the number of deer killed this fall by bow hunters as a key indicator. “Some people should get a chance to shoot the buck of a lifetime. It happens every year.”

With high temperatures forecast around 40 degrees on opening weekend, conditions should be relatively comfortable for hunters to sit in area fields and forests, although snow cover would improve tracking and visibility, Johansen said.

As of Nov. 9, the DNR reported that archery license sales were up 12% and gun license sales up 9.5% from the same date last year.

That boost in interest likely can be attributed in part to people having more time on their hands during the pandemic and viewing outdoor pursuits as safer than indoor activities, Johansen said.

“I think a lot of people are really looking forward to getting out in the woods and letting their brain relax after a stressful year,” he said. “Hunting is a great opportunity for people to recreate and be out in nature and yet socially distance and not put themselves at risk.”


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Wisconsin teachers union calls for statewide benchmarks for schools to reopen
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EAU CLAIRE — After the Eau Claire school district announced last week it would move to all-virtual classes following Thanksgiving, the largest Wisconsin teachers union is calling on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to set specific benchmarks for all Wisconsin schools to know when they can move to face-to-face classes.

“While there have been statewide restrictions, no comprehensive action has been prescribed for our schools,” said Ron Martin, a longtime Eau Claire eighth grade teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

At a Tuesday press briefing, Martin said 90% of teachers surveyed by WEAC said they were in favor of the DHS enforcing statewide gating criteria before returning to in-person classes.

A letter from WEAC to DHS last week said the agency was sending “a perilous mixed message with its position on schools.”

The DHS and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction have both put out recommendations for school districts, and in August DHS pointed districts to a risk assessment tool to decide how classes should look this fall.

But the agency has not issued an order — or mandated benchmarks — dictating when school districts should shut down in-person classes.

Instead, it’s left the final decision in the hands of individual school boards and officials.

In its letter last week, WEAC argued that DHS has the authority to close schools, and therefore can set benchmarks for closing and reopening.

“This lack of binding guidance has resulted in dangerously inconsistent approaches by local health departments and school districts and has led to confusion, unpredictability and discord in local communities,” WEAC said in the letter.

Schools in the Chippewa Valley have also taken varying approaches to reopening this fall. Some began holding in-person classes five days per week; other neighboring districts divided students into cohorts for two days of in-person classes each week.

The Eau Claire school district this fall created a transition plan for moving between face-to-face and virtual learning. But as of Oct. 5, the district’s public plan does not include specific case number benchmarks.

The Eau Claire district said it plans to consult with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and DHS when making a decision to move to virtual or in-person learning.

Last week the district announced it would move to all-virtual classes after Thanksgiving and at least through Dec. 8. That choice came not because of rising cases in the county, but rather that many teachers and staff were quarantined, making it difficult to staff schools, officials said Monday.

Last week, 95 staffers and 816 students were in quarantine, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Fifteen staffers tested positive for the virus last week, as well as 42 students.

Local investigations

Eau Claire school district officials have said COVID-19 spread is not happening person-to-person within school buildings due to socially distanced classrooms and a face mask requirement.

Early national research seems to indicate that schools are not transmission hotspots if they use careful precautions and virus spread within the community is low.

Early data suggest that few outbreaks were reported in schools in early 2020, and when school outbreaks did happen, the virus was more likely to be introduced by adult staffers, the World Health Organization said in October.

But the WHO also emphasized that there is a “strong link” between the number of outbreaks and local transmission.

Preventative measures in schools are even more important in places with “widespread community transmission” of COVID-19, the organization said.

As of Wednesday, every county in Wisconsin except one is at “critically high” COVID-19 activity level, according to the DHS. (The lone holdout, Green County, is one step lower, at “very high” activity level).

In its letter, WEAC said of around 50 health departments in Wisconsin, more than half hadn’t developed any school-specific criteria for moving between in-person or virtual classes.

“Without this statewide approach, Wisconsin is sending a perilous message of hands-off when it comes to school,” Martin said Tuesday. “ ... As long as unmasked high school football players are seen huddling and high-fiving together on the evening news, citizens will not take this pandemic seriously.”

Across Wisconsin, health departments have done 972 investigations into COVID-19 outbreaks at educational facilities, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Of those 972 investigations, 744 are still active as of Wednesday. (The DHS defines two or more cases of COVID-19 in a single facility as an outbreak.)

Fourteen of those investigations at educational facilities have been in Eau Claire County. Nine of the 14 are still active investigations.


Trump pays $3 million for recount of 2 Wisconsin counties

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — President Donald Trump filed Wednesday for a recount of Wisconsin’s two most Democratic counties, paying the required $3 million cost.

The recounts in Milwaukee and Dane counties could begin as soon as Thursday and must be done by Dec. 1. Democrat Joe Biden received 577,455 votes in those two counties compared with 213,157 for Trump. Biden won statewide by 20,608 votes, based on canvassed results submitted by the counties.

“The official canvass results reaffirmed Joe Biden’s clear and resounding win in Wisconsin after Wisconsin voters turned out to cast their ballots in record numbers,” said Biden campaign spokesman Nate Evans. “A cherry-picked and selective recounting of Milwaukee and Dane County will not change these results.”

Milwaukee County is the state’s largest, home to the city of Milwaukee, and Black people make up about 27% of the population, more than any other county. Dane County is home to the liberal capital city of Madison and the flagship University of Wisconsin campus.

“The people of Wisconsin deserve to know whether their election processes worked in a legal and transparent way,” said Wisconsin attorney Jim Troupis, who is working with the Trump campaign. “Regrettably, the integrity of the election results cannot be trusted without a recount in these two counties and uniform enforcement of Wisconsin absentee ballot requirements. We will not know the true results of the election until only the legal ballots cast are counted.”

Dean Knudson, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, said Trump raised “significant legal questions that have never been adjudicated in Wisconsin.”

But a fellow commission member, Democrat Mark Thomsen, said Trump was trying to change the rules of the election after he lost, but only in two counties.

“That’s like losing the Super Bowl and then saying ‘I want a review of a certain play using different rules than what applied to the rest of the game,’” Thomsen said. “That is the essence of hypocrisy and cheating and dishonesty.”

Trump’s campaign said that clerks wrongly added missing information on returned absentee ballots.

But guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, in place since 2016, says that clerks can fix missing witness address components on the envelopes that contain absentee ballots if they have reliable information. That guidance, passed unanimously by the bipartisan elections commission, has been in place for 11 statewide elections without objection.

The elections commission said that there were no corrections to actual absentee ballots contained inside the envelopes. The witness signature and address information is all contained on the envelope in which the ballot is sent.

The Trump campaign is also alleging that voters got around Wisconsin’s photo ID requirement by claiming they were indefinitely confined and therefore didn’t have to present a photo ID in order to return their absentee ballot.

Wisconsin law requires all voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote both in person and by mail. It does provide exceptions for citizens who are indefinitely confined because of age, physical illness or infirmity or are disabled for an indefinite period.

The Wisconsin Republican Party sued Democratic Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell over the advice he had posted on his Facebook page. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered McDonell to stop issuing guidance that is different from official language approved by the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

The Trump campaign also alleges that local election clerks issued absentee ballots to voters without requiring an application, in violation of state law.

Republicans had raised concerns about events held over two weekends at Madison parks where poll workers accepted completed absentee ballots from people. But no ballots were handed out at that event, only those previously requested were accepted and there were no legal challenges filed.

Elections commission members Knudson and Thomsen both said they did not know what Trump was referring to in that complaint.

“This was news to me that that’s been happening,” said Knudson, a Republican.

Thomsen, a Democratic member, said the claim was “not true.”

“Everyone knows you can’t get an absentee ballot unless you request it,” Thomsen said.

The goal is to start the recount in Dane County, at a Madison convention center, on Friday and livestream it, McDonell said. The recount will be done 16 hours a day and will likely take the entire 13 days allotted to complete. Milwaukee County officials planned an update on their plans for later Wednesday.

“We know the result will be the same as it was,” McDonell said. “It’s what we saw across the state four years ago and this election, from my perspective, ran very smoothly.”

Recounts in Wisconsin and across the country have historically resulted in very few vote changes. A 2016 presidential recount in Wisconsin netted Trump an additional 131 votes.

Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes that year and opposed the recount brought by Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

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Associated Press writer Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this.