Thursday, January 31, 2008

WISCONSIN OPINION: Deer Management Undermined by CWD Panel's Petty Squabbles

by Pat Durkin

Last July, then-Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary Scott Hassett appointed 17 citizens and an agency biologist to study Wisconsin's six-year battle with chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer, then decide how to minimize its impact on the herd, woodland habitats, our economy and all who benefit from healthy deer.

Hassett also appointed a technical team to give the advisory group the latest science on CWD, and review and offer guidance as it developed recommendations. The team included a DNR sociologist, conservation warden and wildlife-disease veterinarian; and two CWD experts from the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Wisconsin.

The DNR presented everyone with a handbook that explained the project and encouraged teamwork. The booklet even included an inspiring quotation from famed anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Well, forget that. Six months and eight meetings later, this small group went home Jan. 26 doubting their work would change anything in Wisconsin, let alone the world. The final report offers many insignificant suggestions, but no ultimate goal for managing CWD, and no step-by-step plan with verifiable benchmarks.

Tom Givnish, a University of Wisconsin botany professor who served on the committee, wrote this in his minority report: "The majority report must be judged an abject failure. … The majority (took) so many management tools off the table that it will be impossible to achieve substantial herd reduction or substantially slow the spread of CWD."

The plan merely tweaks hunting regulations that, if approved, would more likely confuse hunters than thwart disease. For instance, the group recommended a statewide ban on recreational deer feeding, but endorsed current deer-baiting laws for hunters, which allow 2 gallons of bait during deer season.

Ed Harvey, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, rejected most of the recommendations in a letter on Jan. 23. "Perhaps most importantly, we want to be very clear that (we) do not support the baiting or feeding of deer," he wrote.

When considering the atmosphere surrounding the group, maybe it's noteworthy they crafted anything. For instance, they voted 9-6 at their Jan. 12 meeting to silence the technical team, directing they not speak unless spoken to. This prompted Dr. Julie Langenberg, the DNR's wildlife veterinarian, to walk out.

That wasn't the first sign of trouble. Dr. Daniel Griffiths, a Lomira veterinarian representing the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association, attended the group's meetings in July and August, missed the next two for other commitments and never returned.

He said angry e-mails from group members dissuaded him. "E-mails were flying back and forth that if people missed meetings, their voices shouldn't be heard," Griffiths said Sunday. "There was nothing I could tell them that they wanted to hear. Some of them had set agendas. They were hostile to the scientists giving presentations at the first two meetings and treated them with disrespect. We had no common ground to work from at that point."

Givnish had similar thoughts. "There was too much going on behind the scenes," he said after the Jan. 26 meeting. "There were ugly blogs on the Internet associated with this committee. Some people have a creepy idea of what public service involves. We're supposed to resolve our differences through rational argument and common sense, not fisticuffs or worse. It's sad that happens, but I wasn't surprised."

Alan Crossley, the DNR's CWD project leader, represented the agency on the committee. He said he tried to create a collaborative spirit within the group, and felt terrible that animosity often resulted instead.

"If anyone is to blame, it's me," Crossley said. "I never should have allowed that vote (to silence the technical team), but I never thought it would pass. Maybe I'm too accustomed to the emotions surrounding deer. People who don't work in this environment were probably more shocked than I was."

Whew. Big ol' sigh.

As disgracefully as the advisory group sometimes behaved, and as noble as it might be for Crossley to take the hit, the true fault lies with the DNR's hierarchy, our governor and Legislature and all state institutions involved in CWD policy-making.

Wisconsin has yet to specify a long-term goal and comprehensive plan for managing CWD, and no leader has championed one. Expecting 17 citizens and one DNR employee to go beyond the chieftains' audits, indifference and second-guessing proved foolish.

Meanwhile, deer continue paying for our apathy.



Chris said...

It is just said that the future of hunting and deer management have to be wrapped up into politics at so many different levels.

Chris said...

Sorry ,the above post should've read

"It is just sad..."