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Outdoor enthusiasts support CWD bounties program

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wildlife officials should again offer bounties for deer carcasses infected with chronic wasting disease as the ailment continues to sweep unabated across the state, two-thirds of outdoor enthusiasts who responded to a survey last month said.

The Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a citizen group that advises the Department of Natural Resources on policy, asked attendees at its annual statewide spring meetings April 8 if they support the idea. The congress also posed the question in an online survey that ran from April 8 through April 11. A tally the DNR released Wednesday shows 5,033 respondents support bounties; 2,854 oppose the idea.

The plan, dubbed Payment for Positives, calls for paying hunters and landowners between $750 and $1,250 per CWD-positive deer and $300 to businesses that open carcass drop-off sites. A pilot effort could run between $900,000 and $1.4 million.

The money would come from tax revenue generated by the state’s deer hunting economy. The governor and the Legislature would have to authorize the spending in the state budget.

The proposal is the brainchild of retired DNR biologist Mike Foy and retired DNR Wildlife Director Tom Hauge, who was working at the agency in 2002 when CWD was discovered near Mount Horeb. The DNR ran a similar bounty program under Hauge from 2003 and 2005 as the agency pushed hunters to kill as many deer as possible in hopes of slowing transmission.

The DNR ended up paying about $645,000 over those three seasons but hunters refused to buy into the idea of killing huge numbers of deer and the DNR ultimately scrapped the strategy. Wary of hunter anger, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker took a largely hands-off approach to CWD during his eight years in office.

CWD deteriorates deer’s brains, resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior and finally death. The Centers for Disease Control says there’s no strong evidence that CWD can affect humans but it may pose a risk to people and exposure should be avoided. The disease has now affected 56 of the state’s 72 counties. The DNR defines “affected” as counties with positives and adjacent counties.

Foy didn’t immediately return a voicemail Wednesday. He told The Associated Press in January that he thinks the payouts were too low in the early 2000s and people now realize that CWD is a serious problem. Hauge said Wednesday that the support for bounties and a ban on baiting and feeding — survey respondents said they would support such a ban by more than a 2-to-1 margin — show people want action.

“Wisconsin CWD policy for the past six or seven years has been a watch and monitor stance,” Hauge said. “CWD isn’t going to wait for Wisconsin to get its act together. It’s just going to keep doing its thing.”

Despite the disease’s spread, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has included no new funding or strategies for fighting it in his 2019-21 state budget. DNR Secretary Preston Cole says the governor wants to see if research going on in other states provides a way forward, adding that legislators he’s spoken with don’t want to “spend another dime” on CWD without research to justify strategies.

The Conservation Congress results are advisory only. It’s unclear whether anyone within the DNR or the Legislature will push for bounties again.

“We need to know what’s best practices, what’s worked,” Evers said. “But we take it seriously.”

DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye had no immediate comment. Cole was non-committal on a bounty program with reporters Tuesday before the survey results were released, saying DNR staff would have to evaluate whether bounties are viable.

Evers told reporters Wednesday that bounties and a ban on baiting and feeding are both “realistic approaches.” But he stressed that the DNR needs to gather more information about the disease.

Republican Tom Tiffany of Minocqua, chairman of the state Senate’s sporting heritage committee and a member of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said he’s skeptical of bounties.

He said too few people responded to the question to draw any conclusions. He would rather spend money to improve deer habitat in northern Wisconsin in hopes of bolstering hunting in that region and to ramp up Lake Michigan salmon stocking, he said.

“Trying to contain the disease did not work,” Tiffany said. “I don’t think it’s a good way to spend money. Before we spend money on this let’s spend it on more opportunities for sportsmen.”

Conservaton Congress chairman Larry Bonde predicted in January the idea would fail. He said he was surprised the concept garnered so much support but warned it would be a tough sell in the state Capitol.

“They’re not going to spend a lot of money on something,” Bonde said, “unless we know it’s going to work.”

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