Even for the most seasoned hunters in the quiet Wisconsin township of Vermont, 24 miles west of Madison, the echo of gunfire has become a chilling sound. "I can't bring myself to hunt," says Don Wenger, 45, a Vermont native who has hunted since age 12. "It's just not fun pulling the trigger in these circumstances."
In Wenger's hometown it has indeed been a morbid spring. This month, hunters in Wisconsin began systematically destroying 15,000 whitetail deer, following a directive from the state's Department of Natural Resources. The killings are part of an effort to rid the area of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a deadly neurological illness that has been found in 14 Wisconsin deer since February. In essence officials have asked hunters to wipe out all deer in a nine-mile radius of Vermont.
CWD, which is related to mad cow disease, attacks the brains of deer and elk and causes the animals to become mysteriously emaciated, lose their bearings and, within weeks, die. CWD had for years been confined to isolated areas of Colorado and Wyoming, but in recent months the disease has been found in Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and in very high concentrations in Wisconsin. "This is the most significant crisis to visit our wildlife in history," says Bob Manwell of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "If we don't act now, within 10 years the deer population will crash significantly."
That would cripple the state's deer hunting industry, which generates about $1 billion annually. The fear also exists that like mad cow disease, CWD could jump to humans. Although the World Health Organization reports that no one has ever been infected with CWD, officials in several states are advising hunters not to eat meat of deer or elk that come from areas where CWD has been found.
How the disease is transmitted is still unknown, but as CWD continues to spread, other states have considered following Wisconsin's lead on intensive hunts. "We want to snuff out the disease as quickly as we can," says Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "No one knows that this method will work, but there's no better option now."
Still, some say the hunts could do more harm than good. Charles Southwick, professor of environmental biology at the University of Colorado, says that "mass culling causes mass dispersal by the deer, which would make the disease more likely to spread." Meanwhile, Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter (CAIDS), a Wisconsin group formed to oppose the hunts, is pursuing legal action to stop the killings.
Until that happens, the deer massacres will continue. On Saturday, Wisconsin passed a law that gives the DNR authority to use sharpshooters in helicopters to kill deer—including on private property with landowner permission. "I can understand people looking at this problem and saying that we need to do whatever possible to get rid of CWD," says CAIDS cofounder Mark Sherven. "But wait until they find it in your neighborhood and come in with the helicopters."