Listen: PKG: CWD Wisconsin (Enger)

MPR’s John Enger traveled to Wisconsin to see what he could learn from that state's efforts to contain Chronic Wasting Disease in it’s deer population.

This is the second in a three-part series.

Click links below for other reports in series:

part 1:

part 3:


2019 MNSPJ Page One Award, second place in Radio - Special Project/In-depth Series category


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SPEAKER: Thousands of Minnesotans will take to the woods in less than 24 hours from now. Deer hunting is a billion industry in Minnesota. But it's being threatened by Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. For the second part of his series on CWD, John Enger recently traveled to Wisconsin to see what he could learn from that state's efforts just to contain the fatal disease.

JOHN ENGER: Mike Foy still remembers exactly where he was when CWD was found in Wisconsin. His voice lowers when he talks about it, even 16 years later.

MIKE FOY: It was February 2002, when we were at a wildlife society meeting and just getting ready to have dinner. And our veterinarian came in and told our bureau director. And it was a big shock.

JOHN ENGER: At the time, CWD had only been found in a few Western states 800 miles away. Then suddenly, scared hunters and landowners were filling gymnasiums, demanding answers. And as a regional DNR biologist, Foy was right at the center of it. The infected deer roam his territory, just outside of Madison.

MIKE FOY: Similar to the early days of HIV, nobody really knew much about the disease or how to respond to it. And at the same time, there was a clamoring to do something.

JOHN ENGER: People wanted action, but Foy says nothing really worked. CWD spread across Wisconsin's lower third, and it's not stopping. So what are the lessons for Minnesota?

Foy retired last year. He putters around his kitchen in his stocking feet, brewing coffee. He says, in the early days of CWD, the plan was pretty simple. The DNR drew a 13-mile ring around those first cases and just tried to kill every deer inside it. They expanded bag limits, hunting seasons, and turned DNR staff, like Foy, into professional sharpshooters.

MIKE FOY: Those were very strenuous years. We used to put in a time sheet every two weeks. And that's normally supposed to be 80 hours for two 40-hour weeks. And we were routinely putting in 125, 150.

JOHN ENGER: Mass killing is one of the only ways to stop CWD. The few remaining deer don't come in contact often enough to spread the disease. It's harsh, but it did work on an infected herd of reindeer in Norway.

It didn't work so well in Wisconsin. It was hard, bloody work, and expensive. And all that action people once clamored for turned out to be really unpopular. Neighbors argued about CWD in grocery store checkout lines. People called their congressmen.

Finally, the legislature stepped in and halted the program. If you've been following Minnesota's much more recent fight against CWD, this should sound familiar. Michelle Carstensen runs the disease management effort for the Minnesota DNR.

When CWD was found in Southeastern Minnesota, she expanded hunting opportunities and brought in sharpshooters. It was a good start. And she wanted to keep going. But the very next year, locals stonewalled the effort. They were tired of killing so many deer and watching the herd diminish.

MICHELLE CARSTENSEN: There's nothing that we can do as an agency to take deer on private land without the explicit permission of that landowner. They have to be in an agreement that this is for a good cause.

JOHN ENGER: So now containment efforts in Minnesota have stalled out. Carstensen wishes she'd spent more time on outreach. And that's what she's doing now, running listening sessions and plotting out long-term plans to contain the spread.

Foy says she's on the right track. But the goal shouldn't be to raise support for more sharpshooting. Instead, he says, she should try to mobilize hunters.

Since his retirement, Foy has been playing around with an idea. Build a highly accurate map of where CWD deer have been taken, he says. Then offer a bounty for more.

MIKE FOY: This idea would work best early on in infection, before the landscape got contaminated, before you had thousands of sick deer.

JOHN ENGER: In Wisconsin, he's proposed a $2,000 reward. In Minnesota, he figures it would take more like $10,000. If that sounds crazy, remember that Wisconsin spent millions on their sharpshooting effort. It cost roughly $10,000 per infected deer. And if it still sounds crazy, just know that I ran the idea past Michelle Carstensen. And she said it's on the table. John Enger, Minnesota Public Radio News, Madison.

SPEAKER: Say John will join us here later this afternoon on All Things Considered. He has a story on how the spread of CWD could change everything about deer hunting.

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