Sharpshooters have started killing deer in southwest Wisconsin. They're trying to kill 15-thousand animals in an attempt to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. Wildlife managers say it's the only way. But many people who live in the area say the plan is dangerous. Some experts say this could be a dress rehearsal for what could happen in Minnesota if the disease spreads across the border.
Linda Derrickson owns a bed and breakfast in the tiny southwestern Wisconsin town of Vermont. Her property includes acres of wooded hillside. It's what Derrickson considers prime habitat for deer.
"We can see 20 to 30 at a time from our window right here," says Derrickson, looking out her large dining room window.
But it's unclear how much longer Derrickson will see deer grazing in her backyard. That's because Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, has turned up her neighborhood. Infected animals become emaciated, lose control of bodily functions and eventually die. CWD is related to Mad Cow Disease, more properly called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Just how CWD is transmitted remains a mystery.
State officials are calling its appearance in Wisconsin the biggest environmental disaster in recent history. They've started taking steps to kill every deer in this part of the state.
Derrickson disagrees with the plan.
"There's so much data that says it won't do anything, all you'll do is kill a lot deer," says Derrickson.
While Derrickson represents one side of the controversy, the DNR's Greg Mathews speaks to the other.
Mathews argues quick eradication of deer in the area he calls the "red zone" is a necessity. He believes eventually if untreated, CWD will kill off the state's entire white-tail deer population. That would be bad for the environment, for hunters, and for tourism.
"There comes a time in life whatever your profession is when you're faced with a crisis and you have to make a decision based on science, your training, your field experience. We did and as with anything in government, everyone isn't going to be happy," says Mathews.
Mathews predicts it could as much five years to hunt all the deer.
The question remains: what to do with the carcasses? One possibility is the Dane County landfill. Trucks dump loads of garbage onto a giant mountain of decomposing waste. Fifteen-thousand deer are roughly the equivalent of one day's trash. But with so much unknown about CWD, landfill storage raises all sorts of environmental red flags.
Out west, where CWD has a longer history, some people raise concerns about landfill disposal. Three years ago residents in Phillsburg, Montana rejected a plan to bury infected elk. Instead townsfolk opted for a more expensive option and the elk were incinerated.
Jerry Madli is the solid waste manager for Dane County. Madli says it's unclear whether the deer will end up in the landfill. If they do he thinks it will be safe. However Madli concedes he doesn't know how they would test whether the disease is getting into ground water.
"The situation seems to be under control, but that would be something we would need to consider before making the decision to accept the carcasses," says Madli.
This week the Wisconsin Legislature has convened an emergency session focused on CWD. Even as the state faces a major budget deficit, $4 million have been allotted to the eradiation effort. While the rest of the state seems supportive of the plan to destroy the herd in southwestern Wisconsin, locals remain largely opposed. Some locals say with the amount of shooting necessary to kill 15,000 deer, they worry that people may get hurt.
No one expects a quick solution.
Greg Mathews from the DNR says with so many question marks surrounding CWD, eradication is the states best attempt at an educated guess.More from MPR