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From: TSS (
Subject: Fire in the Sistine Chapel: How Wisconsin Responded to Chronic Wasting Disease
Date: September 12, 2004 at 8:12 am PST

In Reply to: HUMAN DIMENSIONS OF WILDLIFE posted by TSS on September 12, 2004 at 7:41 am:

Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 9:165–179, 2004
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN: 1087–1209 print / 1533-158X online
DOI: 10.1080/10871200490479954
Peer-Reviewed Articles
“Fire in the Sistine Chapel”: How Wisconsin
Responded to Chronic Wasting Disease
Department of Rural Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Department of Animal Ecology
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Umeå, Sweden
The discovery of CWD in the Wisconsin deer herd in February 2002 was
treated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as if it was a fire.
Rapid action led to abandoning stakeholder concerns while human dimensions
expertise and research was largely ignored and opportunities to learn
from innovations were missed. After two years, neither the biological nor the
social goals of the program have been achieved. Hunters killed fewer rather
than more deer, deer densities in the eradication zone remained high, and
efforts to end recreational feeding failed. Deer hunting license sales dropped
by over 90,000. Revenues to the agency declined and other programs
suffered as money was reallocated to fight CWD. Hunters were hardest hit,
losing about 60 million in recreational benefits or a 20% decline in the
annual surplus value of deer hunting in the state. This article examines the
Wisconsin response to CWD to help better understand why the human and
biological goals were not met.
Keywords chronic wasting disease, hunting, human dimensions, stakeholders
On the last day of February 2002, Wisconsin discovered chronic wasting disease
(CWD) in three free-ranging deer. An Interagency Health and Science Team was
The author thanks the following for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript: Richard
Bishop, Scott Craven, Patrick Durkin, Jordan Petchenick, Elizabeth Thomson, Jerry Vaske, Keith
Warnke, and two anonymous reviewers.
Address correspondence to Thomas A. Heberlein, Department of Rural Sociology, 346b Agriculture
Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, 53506, USA. E-mail:
166 Thomas A. Heberlein
quickly formed and in the months to follow, the Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources (WDNR) took unprecedented actions. In contrast to some states “that
did not do enough to stop the spread of the disease when it was first discovered”
(Mark Miller, staff veterinarian with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, as quoted
in Jones, 2002b), Wisconsin wildlife managers claimed that an aggressive
approach was necessary to stem the spread of CWD. This article examines the
Wisconsin response to CWD from a human dimensions perspective to better
understand the success of the approach in meeting both human and biological
The stated CWD management goal of the WDNR was to minimize “the
negative impact of chronic wasting disease on cervid populations, the state’s economy,
hunters, landowners, and other people dependent upon healthy wild and
farmed populations of deer and elk” (Bartelt, Pardee, & Thiede, 2003, p. 40).
Nine months after CWD was discovered, however, Wisconsin showed the largest
single year decline in deer license sales (−91,442) in the 20th century. This 11%
drop was nearly two standard deviations below the trend line (Figure 1). The
revenues lost for wildlife management in 2002 were $3.4 million dollars. The
license sales rebounded slightly in 2003, but were still the lowest number since
1982. Wisconsin had stepped back two decades in hunter numbers.
Among those who continued to participate in the sport, hunting traditions
changed and hunters and their families worried about the safety of venison
(Vaske, Timmons, Beaman, & Petchenik, 2004). Fewer hunters in the field led to
2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 1996 1995 1994 1993 1992 1991
Trend Line Equation
y = 7594.09x + 834397.80
FIGURE 1 Wisconsin deer license sales 1991–2002.
Source: WDNR Bureau of Customer Service and Licensing
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 167
fewer deer taken. The 2002 harvest of 372,021 was 20% less than the 5-year
average of 1997–2001.
The economic losses to hunters in 2002 were about $60,000,000 and an
equal amount in 2003 (Bishop, 2004), a loss that is far greater than the loss to the
rest of Wisconsin’s economy. This amounts to losses of $90 in recreational benefits
for each hunter. The net value of the Wisconsin deer hunt dropped by about
20% after CWD was discovered (Bishop, 2004). Landowners in the area with
CWD-infected deer had economic losses including changes in hunting opportunities
and tradition. Landowners who opposed the WDNR’s management strategy
banded together and by the end of 2002, had petitions signed by owners of 132
square miles (nearly one-third of the eradication zone) agreeing not to participate
in special hunts. Recreational wildlife viewers also faced losses as a ban on
feeding was put in place during 2002. This group later exercised political force
and convinced the legislature to end the statewide feeding ban in spite of
repeated attempts by the WDNR to make the ban permanent.
Over 11 million dollars, much of it from the wildlife budget, was reallocated
to fight CWD and dispose of potentially infected deer. Thousands of deer were
incinerated at $0.85 per pound after public officials refused to allow deer to be
placed in landfills (Imrie, 2003; Weier, 2002a). These expenses and reallocations
to fight CWD eventually led to cutbacks in pheasant stocking and other programs
valuable to hunting. The legislature refused to increase hunting license fees in
2003, although there had been no increases since 1997.
The WDNR proposed to control CWD by implementing three strategies: (1)
reduce deer density statewide, (2) eradicate the deer herd in a 411 square mile area,
and (3) stop recreational feeding. In the end, none of these were effectively implemented.
Instead of killing more deer statewide in 2002, Wisconsin hunters killed
fewer. Efforts to eradicate deer in the 411 square mile Eradication Zone (EZ) made
some progress (7,249 deer were harvested during fall and winter hunts), but as a
WDNR researcher concluded at the end of the season, the net reduction was not
substantial (Bergquist, 2003). The WDNR originally estimated 25,000 deer in the
EZ. After subsequent aerial surveys, however, this estimate was adjusted downward
to between 16,400 and 17,900. When factoring in fawn production for spring
2003, deer densities in the EZ were still 30 to 35 per square mile of deer range and
remained at these levels after the 2003 season. By March 2004, WDNR biologists
predicted that at this rate, it will take 20 years to reach the population goals
(Seeley, 2004). Several deer outside of the EZ tested positive for CWD and the
zone was further expanded. As of spring 2004, the EZ covered more than 960
square miles and in 2004, recreational feeding was still legal in most of the state.
Fire in the Sistine Chapel
Richard Nelson, an anthropologist, Wisconsin native, and author of Heart and
Blood: The Meaning of Deer in America (1998), was asked by Milwaukee Journal
168 Thomas A. Heberlein
Sentinel reporters how he viewed the discovery of CWD in the Wisconsin deer
herd (Bergquist & Romell, 2002). Nelson described it as “a fire in the Sistine
Chapel.” White-tailed deer are the icon species in Wisconsin. During the 9-day
November gun deer hunt, schools and factories close as over 600,000 hunters
take to the field. Earlier in the fall, over 200,000 archers are afield. Newspapers
are filled with pictures of hunters and their deer. Hunting camps and family
traditions associated with the deer hunt go back 50 years or more. The
discovery of a disease that could potentially wipe out the deer herd (Gross &
Miller, 2001) and possibly affect human health (Belay et al., 2004) looked
like a fire in the Sistine Chapel and the management response was to treat it
as such.
The Fuel Build Up
CWD was first observed in penned mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in Colorado
in the 1960s and in free-ranging mule deer and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus
virginianus) in the 1980s and 1990s in Wyoming and Colorado (Williams,
Miller, Kreeger, Kahn, & Thorne, 2002). In CWD-infected areas, the state of
Colorado provided free testing for hunters who were concerned about the health
of their deer and issued free licenses to those whose deer had tested positive.
In areas where CWD had been found, additional permits were issued to reduce
deer density, and hunters had lined up to purchase these permits. The dramatic
declines of hunter numbers observed in Wisconsin were not observed in Colorado
(J. Smeltzer, personal communication, April 12, 2002).
But this was before the discovery of mad cow disease (a prion disease similar
to CWD) in Europe. There, officials had assured the public that mad cow disease
could not be transmitted to humans. Unfortunately, approximately 130 people
were diagnosed with a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) associated
with mad cow disease. A prion disease had jumped the species barrier and was
killing people in spite of reassurances by public officials. From a social-psychological
perspective, this can be likened to a build up in the fuel level. The public
had something real to be afraid of and after the events in Europe, public officials
were wary of assuring the public of their safety.
Testing for CWD in Wisconsin began in 1999 after the mad cow scare
occurred in Europe. Sampling was largely opportunistic because the WDNR
veterinary program had limited funds for testing. The major goal was to look for
TB, which had been found in Michigan. Testing for CWD occurred at the same
time as a matter of convenience. Because CWD had not been found in Wisconsin,
there was no strong rationale for testing to simply demonstrate its absence.
As Sara Shapiro-Hurley, deputy administrator of the WDNR, noted: “never in a
million years did we expect to find a disease problem” (Bennett, 2002). The
nearly 1,000 miles between Colorado and Wisconsin and the Mississippi River
looked like major barriers to CWD “movement.”
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 169
What ultimately triggered the fire response was how the WDNR first learned
that Wisconsin deer had CWD. The USDA lab notified the Wisconsin Department
of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection without notifying the WDNR or
the scientist who sent in the samples. Thus, the WDNR Secretary first learned
that CWD had arrived in Wisconsin when it was announced by the Secretary of
another department at a cabinet meeting on the morning of February 28, 2002.
The announcement in the governor’s office by a Secretary of another department
meant that CWD had become a state problem—not a resource management problem
—and no one including the governor could distance themselves from CWD.
The Fire
With the discovery of a “fire in the Sistine Chapel”, the WDNR held a press
conference six hours after the morning meeting in the governor’s office. Unfortunately,
there was no plan in place for what to do if CWD was found. Early the
next day, an incident command system was established with an operation center
in Dodgeville to collect more than 500 deer samples. The organizational structure
was similar to that used for fire control (Lamb, 2002). This move to a command
and control system would frame, for better or worse, the rest of the Wisconsin
response to the discovery of three infected deer. “It was not a tornado or forest
fire that hit a portion of deer management unit 70a . . . but state agencies
responded as they would for any emergency” wrote Jerry Davis (2002), a former
professor of biology. Milton Friend, former head of the National Wildlife Health
Center in Madison, likened “chronic wasting disease hot spots to a wind whipped
fire” (Bergquist & Romell, 2003, p. 16a). Dave Weitz, a WDNR Information
Officer, continued with the fire metaphor by stating that “it’s like a forest fire,
you don’t wait for it to get as big as it can get; you take care of it immediately”
(WEAU-TV, 2003). Wayne Cunningham, a Colorado state veterinarian, used
even stronger language stating that “I think it is time to treat this like cancer and
cut deep and wide” (Associated Press, 2002c). Eight days after the discovery of
CWD in the state, the Green Bay Press Gazette shouted “CWD war begins in
Wisconsin” (Naze, 2002).
The immediate move to an incident command system reflects part of a
changing culture in the WDNR. In the 1960s, the Wisconsin Conservation
Department became the Department of Natural Resources and assumed more
responsibility for environmental quality issues. The WDNR budget was heavily
allocated to environmental protection and even wildlife management is driven
by the environmental protection culture and norms. Game wardens work on managing
oil spills, as well as arresting poachers.
The unknown nature of prion diseases helped to provoke the fire response.
Because little was known about the disease, the immediate response was to treat
it like a fire and attempt to wipe it out. “We are sort of like the Alamo. We want
to make a stand here and eradicate it and prevent it from spreading” said Greg
170 Thomas A. Heberlein
Matthews, a WDNR spokesman (Jones, 2002a, p. A1). In the summer of 2002
when nearly 20 deer in the CWD area were found dead from epizootic hemorrhagic
disease, there was little response by the department because the etiology of this
disease was relatively well known.
A fire response means rapid action. Fires, wars, and cancer are fought in real
time. Agency personnel were under tremendous pressure from the governor’s
office and legislative leaders to “DO SOMETHING.” The Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel editorialized on March 21 that “chronic wasting disease requires collective
action.” The Wisconsin State Journal three days later announced “Time crucial in
fight against CWD.” Outdoor writer Tim Eisele’s (2002) article in the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel appeared under the headline “Fast action required.” The previous
day, The Capital Times (2002) had demanded “Act fast on wildlife bill.”
Study, research, and planning were seen as inaction. Some type of direct manipulation
of nature was required.
Events that had long been stalled were put into motion. By March 5, 2002,
less than one week after CWD was reported, a key committee of the legislature
voted to give the Agriculture Department authority to establish quarantines and
to impose health disclosure and monitoring requirements for deer shipped into
the state (Associated Press, 2002a). On March 8, the Wisconsin Legislature
passed a bill that was a complete rewrite of the 30-year-old law regulating captive
wildlife. This bill gave the WDNR the power to regulate game farms, a suspected
source of CWD transmission (Weier, 2002b).
In April 2002, the newly collected data indicated that about 3% of the deer
in the sampled area had CWD. The WDNR formulated a plan to eradicate the
disease in Wisconsin by killing all of the deer in the area where infected deer
were found (Joly et al., 2003). CWD had become so important that an unprecedented
special session of the state legislature was called in early May 2002 to
approve the emergency plan. Special hunting seasons designed to kill all of the
deer in the eradication zone (EZ) began in June 2002. Summer hunting seasons
and liberal fall seasons were established and WDNR “sharp shooters” took to the
field to kill deer. The WDNR also sought approval and got an emergency order to
end the recreational feeding of deer statewide.
Changes in deer management usually move at glacial speeds in Wisconsin.
A change that allowed a single individual rather than four-person parties to hunt
antler-less deer took more than a decade to implement. A plan to open the gun
deer season earlier in northwestern Wisconsin died after a six-year effort. And
the WDNR’s plans for a 16-day deer season failed despite nearly 15 years of
intermittent efforts. In a state where wildlife policy often stalls for years, even
decades, the speed of changes in response to CWD resembled firefighters racing
to an inferno.
Treating CWD like a fire and the rapid management actions that followed
had three major consequences. First, the WDNR almost instantly adopted an
expert-client approach that limited stakeholder input in resource management.
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 171
Second, biological concerns remained dominant with little consideration of
human dimensions expertise. The focus was on the disease rather than how to
minimize the negative impacts to hunters, landowners, and other groups. Third,
insufficient time was devoted to learning about human impacts and responses.
The WDNR decided that the best way to minimize the negative impact to the
state’s economy, hunters, landowners, and others who were affected by deer
management policies was to put out the fire as quickly as possible. No “let it
burn” alternatives were considered. The rush to save the “Sistine Chapel”
ignored the possibility that how one puts out the fire may be as damaging as the
fire itself.
Outdated Management Strategies
Before 1970, wildlife managers had a client constituency relationship with the
clients being hunters and trappers (Decker & Brown, 2001). Both managers and
their clients often shared the same goals (usually the production of more game)
and the managers advised their clients on how to achieve these goals. The clients
provided financial and where necessary political support. This relationship is
usually associated with an expert-authority approach to wildlife management;
a “top down” approach in which wildlife managers make decisions and take
actions unilaterally. The model was typical when managers served a narrow
constituency, with which they identified and shared values and viewed wildlife
management as solving biological problems (Decker & Chase, 2001). “Even
today, an authoritative approach by wildlife managers (the biological experts)
can work when there are few stakeholders and the stakeholders recognize that the
experts share their values” (Decker & Chase, 2001, p. 135).
In the last 30 years, wildlife management has changed and it is now recognized
that there are a diversity of stakeholders around any issue. Such stakeholders
do not necessarily share the values of the wildlife managers. The goal and the
challenge of modern human dimensions research and training has been to help
managers identify and understand the stakeholder groups and to explicitly
bring them into the management process. Bringing in stakeholders takes time
and additional research is almost always necessary. Perhaps more importantly,
managers must share some power with the stakeholders and in the extreme case, comanage
resources with the stakeholders. When it comes to stakeholders, “managers
have learned that taking a paternalistic ‘we know what is best for you’
approach alienates stakeholders, especially those whose values differ from the
values of the managers” (Decker & Chase, 2001, p. 135). Wisconsin had been
increasing its stakeholder involvement in wildlife management, but when faced
with an unknown like CWD in the deer herd, managers fell back on the expertauthority
model and largely ignored key stakeholders.
The management response was to rapidly sample deer in the area where the
first infected deer were found and then within two weeks, develop a plan for how
172 Thomas A. Heberlein
to deal with the problem. The aggressive strategy was based on a statistical
model (Cary, 2003). Once the plan was developed, “experts” informed the clients
about how they were going to save the deer herd. The initial public meeting was
held on May 1, 2002 in Mount Horeb (a community surrounded by the areas where
infected deer had been discovered). The intent was not to obtain information
from the public, but rather to inform them of the problem and the management
response. As one WDNR manager told the public that night, “If you are not part
of the solution, you are part of the problem” (Seeley, 2002).
The approach adopted by the WDNR largely ignored stakeholders who
owned the land where the “experts” had determined the appropriate strategy was
to eradicate the disease by killing all of the deer. For many of these individuals,
seeing, hunting, and living with deer is rooted in their rural heritage. Local landowners
had concerns not only about deer health, but also about trespassing, hunting
practices, and deer density. Extended hunting seasons, hunting at night with
spotlights, or using aircraft to herd or shoot the deer troubled local landowners.
A stakeholder approach involves gathering as much information about landowners
as possible from secondary sources. Listening to stakeholders’ concerns
and presenting what is known about the problem in a series of focus groups is
typically the second step in stakeholder-based approaches. Three months after
the discovery of CWD and after the eradication plan had been announced and
actively implemented, the WDNR held four focus groups with landowners and
hunters who lived and recreated in the infected areas.
The WDNR managers based extreme action on a statistical model (Cary,
2003) that was not shared with key stakeholders. This model projected deer numbers
under various scenarios of the spread of the disease. Although the model
was complicated, it was basically a spreadsheet with a set of formulae and
explicit assumptions. Many of the local landowners had the experience necessary
to estimate and interpret the model under different sets of assumptions. Rather
than giving the stakeholders access to the model, the “experts” kept the model
from the public. The landowner stakeholder group finally used the Freedom of
Information Act to get information about the model from the WDNR and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. The model on which the WDNR based its
policies lacked not only public review, but scientific review as well. In April
2003, the WDNR formed an external Program Review Panel of six scientists
from outside the state to evaluate its management policies and actions regarding
CWD. The panel raised concerns about the lack of scientific review. “Because
the Cary model underpins the need for aggressive actions to control and eradicate
CWD in Wisconsin, an independent outside review of the model, preferably
resulting in publication in a peer-reviewed journal, should be conducted”
(Fischer et al., 2003, p. 5).
Because no aggressive program to reduce deer density could be effective
without the active involvement of the landowners, the WDNR would have been
well advised to quickly move toward a co-management approach. Even among
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 173
the landowners, there was agreement that deer densities needed to be reduced.
The questions were to what level and by what means. Under this strategy, wildlife
managers needed to collaborate with landowners on how to reduce deer density.
Ideas from this stakeholder group could have been evaluated in terms of
feasibility and effectiveness at reducing deer density. These proposals could have
been implemented in an adaptive management framework with success criteria
identified. If one mechanism was not successful, the next would have been
brought into play. Failing to bring stakeholders into the policy process was an
important reason why the WDNR failed to achieve the biological goal of deer
herd eradication. Even the outside review team noted that “public opposition to
the DNR’s management plan, particularly by landowners in the affected area,
represents a potentially significant obstacle to the successful eradication of CWD
from the state” (Fischer et al., 2003, p. 4).
Another key stakeholder group was also ignored. Over the years, recreational
deer feeding has become popular, particularly in the northern part of the
state. Feeding allowed landowners to see deer on their property and hunters felt
that feeding increased their chances of harvest success in heavily wooded areas
and other areas of low deer density. Stakeholders interested in recreational feeding
of deer were largely ignored by the WDNR. Because concentrating deer may
increase the probability of spreading CWD, wildlife managers moved to ban deer
feeding across the state whether or not CWD was present. This strategy was
imposed by experts with little up-to-date information on the social and economic
dimensions of feeding deer. As predicted by human dimensions research “disgruntled
stakeholders who feel they have been dealt with unfairly can delay or
derail decision making and wildlife management programs,” (Decker & Chase,
2001, p. 135). In 2003, the legislature responded to these stakeholders by overturning
the statewide ban on feeding. The stakeholders and the legislature felt
that the recreational benefits from deer feeding were more valuable than the
increased risk from the deer concentrations, particularly in areas of the state
where CWD had not yet been found.
Social Science and the Fire Brigade
Wisconsin has been known as one of the leaders in the human dimensions area.
The WDNR has sociologists on staff and has traditionally had good working
relations with human dimensions researchers at the University of Wisconsin in
Madison, Stevens Point, and La Crosse. When the fire was discovered, however,
the solutions focused on simply killing deer as quickly as possible rather than a
more balanced approach involving human dimensions; the fire truck roared out
of the station without the social scientists on board.
There were no social scientists on the Interagency Health and Science Team,
which was on point during the first weeks after CWD discovery. Among the 11
contributing authors and editors of the WDNR environmental impact statement
174 Thomas A. Heberlein
on CWD (Bartelt et al., 2003), there were no social scientists. Even direct
requests to the WDNR by social scientists to help were rebuffed (R. C. Bishop,
personal communication, March 25, 2004). The Chancellor of the University
of Wisconsin-Madison established a blue ribbon panel on CWD that included
no social scientists even though there was a number of social science faculty
with relevant experience and interests who could have been asked. The fiveperson
outside review team brought in one year later had one human dimensions
The research agenda showed the same bias. Deer were sampled by the
WDNR within days of the discovery, but it took more than eight months for
the WDNR to conduct the first scientific survey of hunters in an attempt to
assess the effect of CWD. Until that time, the WDNR had only surveyed nonrandom
samples of self-selected meeting attendees. On the other hand, four
statewide surveys were funded by the private sector and the media to estimate
hunter and non-hunter impacts. The first of these was conducted in early May
2002. The findings from this study pointed to the likelihood of a decline in
hunter numbers. This was corroborated by a 20–30% decline in actual license
sales during the summer of 2002. Normally, such an unprecedented drop in
hunter numbers would have provoked internal agency research, but this was
not the case.
Some research was rapidly initiated, but it was not in the human dimensions
area. Funds were awarded to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department
of Wildlife Ecology in August 2002 and soon after, deer in the EZ were being
trapped and collared in order to determine their potential dispersion rate, a key
unknown in the Cary (2003) model. Scientific studies of hunters and land owners
were not initiated until much later.
Failing to have social scientists involved at the highest level meant that
human dimensions issues were less likely to be raised and seriously considered—
both in the consideration of policy alternatives and research agendas. For
example, a widely available economic impact assessment done by Bishop (2002)
in July 2002 was not even cited by the WDNR in their environmental impact
assessment written six months later. Had an economist been involved, it is
unlikely that such a document would have been overlooked. The issue here is not
that CWD does not have a biological component, but management response
involves sociology and economics, as well as biology and ecology. The planning
and the response might have been more successful if there had been more of a
balance between the natural and social sciences.
Missed Opportunities
Treating CWD like a fire and not having a balance of human dimensions expertise
led to missed opportunities to learn from the CWD experience. The most notable
was the chance to learn about how to sustain hunter numbers in the midst of a crisis.
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 175
In response to the four-month decline in hunting license sales, the WDNR
cooperated with Whitetails Unlimited, Gander Mountain (a sporting goods
chain), and other groups to do what was unthinkable in Wisconsin even the year
before. They began advertising to encourage individuals to hunt deer. The campaign
included billboards, radio spots, and brochures. In the scientific and policy
discussions of decreasing hunter numbers and potential solutions, no one has
examined the effects of a large-scale advertising campaign.
Consistent with an adaptive management framework, it would have been
useful to evaluate the effects of this advertising so it could be abandoned if it
failed to work, or redesigned to make it more effective in the future. An experimental
design could have easily been set up where the advertising was restricted
to several large markets keeping other markets as controls. Even if one campaign
blanketed the state, some of the budget could have been retained to do surveys to
determine how many hunters and non-hunters saw the advertisements and to
assess the effect on individuals’ attitudes and their probability of hunting. It is
possible that the advertisements made attitudes toward hunting more negative.
The effects of advertising could also have been assessed with surveys of hunters
who bought licenses after the advertising. Such surveys would have not only
revealed how many people had seen the advertisements, but also would have
measured self-reports of the role that they played in individuals’ decisions to
However, there were no resources and time available to an agency that was
responding to a fire. Funds were available to study wildlife movement and modeling,
as well as to incinerate deer at nearly a dollar a pound, but not to take
advantage of a unique and important human dimensions opportunity.
A Wildfire or Smoke of Unknown Origin?
The events leading to the discovery of CWD and the application of an incident
command model the day after it was discovered framed the Wisconsin response
for the first year. But was CWD really a fire? Should it have been treated as a
There are two problems with the fire model. First, general plans for how to
fight fires and how to deal with oil and even toxic waste spills are in place. There
are known rules for handling such things. But for three CWD-infected deer discovered
in the absence of any plan, there was no precedent for the incident command
team. Action was taken quickly and outside normal review procedures,
but where to go was less clear. It was like racing to a fire when you did not know
the address.
The wildfire model is also inconsistent with what was known about the
disease. The fire metaphor suggests that CWD moves rapidly, but the scientific
evidence suggests that it does not (Williams et al., 2002). According to the
176 Thomas A. Heberlein
statistical model (Cary, 2003) on which much of the state’s response was based,
the observed incidence rate was consistent with CWD being present in the population
for about five years prior to 2002. The model showed that if CWD were to
remain unchecked, there would be little difference in the number of infected deer
or their dispersion between years five and six. In fact, it would take until year 10
to see much difference in CWD numbers and dispersion (Cary, 2003). Although
the model did predict large effects on deer numbers 25 years out, the increases in
the number of infected deer between years 5 and 7 was trivial.
This was acknowledged by Julie Langenberg, the WDNR veterinarian
who initiated the testing and headed the Interagency CWD Health and Science
Team. Dr. Langenberg told over 1,000 people at the March 21, 2002 public
meeting in Mount Horeb that “this is a disease that doesn’t go through a population
of animals in epidemic form. The disease progresses slowly” (Associated Press,
2002b). Williams et al. (2002, p. 551) made the same point about the spread of
CWD in Colorado’s free-ranging herds, stating that “[the] natural rate of expansion
has been slow” (emphasis added).
The observation of CWD in 3% of the herd in an area that covered about 3%
of the land in Wisconsin was not a fire, but more like an early warning. This
scientific fact, known to the Interagency Health and Science Team in March
2002, could have given the agency and state government several years to work
with local landowners, hunters, and other interested parties to collect additional
data and plan a strategy to deal with CWD.
Wisconsin differed from others states by treating CWD like a fire. This led to
rapid and often unconsidered action. Time was not given to set up a strategy
where goals and objectives could be established, and programs based on their
success at achieving these goals implemented and evaluated. Managers reverted to
an expert-authority management model. They replaced a stakeholder approach with
a traditional client-constituent relationship. Even in a state with a strong tradition
of human dimensions in wildlife management, when the crisis came, human
dimensions were largely ignored. The assumption seemed to be if the disease
could be eradicated, the economic and social consequences would be minimized.
The process by which the WDNR attempted to put out the fire, however, led to
large economic losses born by the hunters and the agency. The short-term strategy
certainly did not minimize “the negative impact . . . on . . . the state’s economy,
hunters, landowners and other(s)” (Bartelt et al., 2003, p. 40, emphasis added).
Stakeholders banded together to prevent deer herd eradication and a statewide
ban on recreational deer feeding. There is still high deer density and CWD in
Wisconsin with no end in sight.
Wisconsin would have been more likely to minimize the negative human
impacts and to at least contain CWD if the disease had been treated as a long-term
The Wisconsin Response to CWD 177
scientific problem rather than a fire. The first step in such a program would have
been to bring together biological and human dimensions experts to work out a
program of research that would lead to a management strategy to minimize the
negative human and biological impacts. As part of this strategy, it would have
been vital to collect data to learn more about the stakeholders and the distribution
of the disease before any actions were taken to eradicate deer. Had Wisconsin
set up a 3 to 5 year adaptive management strategy involving stakeholders and
balancing human dimensions involvement, the state might have been a model for
how to handle the discovery of new and unknown threats to the deer herd.
Instead, what is left is the aftermath of a fire.
Aldo Leopold (1944) reviewed a deer eradication scheme to reduce
disease in Florida and observed that “at best, the scientific base in this case was
sketchy, and no imagination had been used in searching for less destructive alternatives.”
Leopold could well be describing Wisconsin 60 years later. The
Wisconsin approach has received national attention and it is likely that other
states have already learned from this experience. On the first anniversary of the
CWD discovery in Wisconsin, after finding seven of their own deer with CWD,
an Illinois Department of Natural Resources official told a reporter that “an eradication
plan like Wisconsin’s is not something we are considering at this time”
(Bergquist, 2003, p. A8).
Act fast on wildlife bill. (2002, March 23). The Capital Times, p. A10.
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disease. Appleton Post Crescent.
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herd. Michigan Eagle Herald.
Bartelt, J., Pardee, J., & Thiede, K. (2003). Environmental impact statement on rules to
eradicate chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin’s free-ranging white-tailed deer
herd. Unpublished manuscript. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Natural
Belay, E. D., Maddox, R. A., Williams, E. S., Miller, M. W., Gambetti, P., & Schonberger, L. B.
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Journal, p. A10.
Bergquist, L. (2003, February 26). Deer disease still outrunning its captors. The Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, p. A8.
Bergquist, L., & Romell, R. (2002, October 20). Deadly game: Chronic wasting disease
part 1: Dawn of a nightmare. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, pp. A1, A14–17.
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in Wisconsin (Staff Paper No. 450). Retrieved April 29, 2004, from University of
178 Thomas A. Heberlein
Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics Web site:
Bishop, R. C. (2004). The economic impacts of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in
Wisconsin. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 9(3), this issue.
Cary, J. (2003, March 5). Modeling CWD. Lecture in Wildlife Ecology 691, Chronic wasting
disease: An emerging epizootic in Wisconsin. Madison: University of Wisconsin-
Davis, J. (2002, April 11) DNR takes CWD by the tail. Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune.
Decker D. J., & Brown T. L. (2001). Understanding your stakeholders. In D. J. Decker,
T. L. Brown, & Siemer W. F. (Eds.), Human dimensions of wildlife management in
North America, pp. 109–132. Bethesda, MD: The Wildlife Society.
Decker D. J., & Chase, L. C. (2001). Stakeholder involvement: Seeking solutions in changing
times. In D. J. Decker, T. L. Brown, & Siemer W. F. (Eds.), Human dimensions
of wildlife management in North America. pp. 133–152. Bethesda, MD: The Wildlife
Eisele, T. (2002, March 24). Fast action required. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, p. C16.
Fischer, J. R., Fischer, L. H., Creekmore, R. L., Marchinton, S. J., Riley, S. M., Schmitt, R.,
& Williams, E. S. (2003). External review of chronic wasting disease management in
Wisconsin. Unpublished manuscript. Madison: Wisconsin Department of Natural
Gross, J. E., & Miller, M. W. (2001). Chronic wasting disease in mule deer: Disease
dynamics and control. Journal of Wildlife Management, 65(2), 205–215.
Imrie, R. (2003, January 16). Spending on CWD fight at 11.5 million. Wisconsin State
Journal, p. A1.
Joly, D. O., Ribic, C. A., Langenberg, J. A., Beheler, K., Batha, C. A., Dhuey, B. J., Rolley,
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in free-ranging Wisconsin white-tailed deer. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 9(5),
Jones, M. (2002a, April 19). DNR plans drastic cut in deer herd. The Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel, pp. A1, A15.
Jones, M. (2002b, May 2). Massive deer kill sought. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
pp. A1, A15.
Lamb, B. (2002, March 21). Hauge’s life has been a blur since discovery of a disease.
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Leopold, A. (1944, December 5). Ticks and deer: A lesson in conservation (Aldo Leopold
Papers General Files, F-L. 9/25/10-2. Box 4). Madison: University of Wisconsin-
Madison Archives.
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Seeley, R. (2004, March 22). DNR seeks way to cut deer in areas with CWD. Wisconsin
State Journal, p. A1.
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in Wisconsin: Hunter behavior, perceived risk, and agency trust. Human Dimensions
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The Wisconsin Response to CWD 179
WEAU-TV. (2003, March 9). Bait debate [Television broadcast]. Eau Claire, WI: Gray
MidAmerica TV/Interactive Media.
Weier, A. (2002a, September 5). State to burn carcasses in Poynette. The Capital Times,
p. A2.
Weier, A. (2002b, March 22). Delay on captive wildlife bill hit: It would strengthen safeguards.
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Chronic wasting disease of deer and elk: A review with recommendations for management.
Journal of Wildlife Management, 66(3), 551–563.


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