- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced a series of changes in Wisconsin’s chronic wasting disease plan Friday, calling for more studies and guidelines for the deer farm industry but rejecting suggestions to resume thinning the state’s herds.

Pressure has been mounting on Walker to step up efforts to contain the disease after infection rates hit a new high last year. A pair of Democratic lawmakers has called for culling the herd in disease zones and a prominent sportsmen’s group has pressed the governor to impose tougher regulations on deer farms.

Walker announced the new initiatives at a Conservation Congress meeting in Manitowoc. He said he wants to update the state’s CWD plan by seeking input from hunters, landowners, farmers and foresters through county deer advisory councils; directing the Department of Natural Resources to study “deer population dynamics” and invest in research to better understand CWD’s effects on the state’s deer herd. The governor also ordered state agriculture officials to create best practices for deer farms and the DNR to conduct deer farm fence inspections every two years. Currently the agency inspects farm fences once per decade.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the DNR will start implementing the initiatives immediately. DNR spokesman James Dick said he didn’t have a cost estimate because the initiatives’ details haven’t been finalized.

CWD causes deer to grow thin, act strangely and eventually die. It was first discovered in Wisconsin in 2002 near Mount Horeb, sending a shock through the state’s hunting industry.

The DNR initially tried to contain the disease by eradicating as many deer as possible, but backed off in 2010 after intense public backlash. The agency’s current strategy calls for reducing local herds in isolated areas of infection that appear far from known disease clusters but centers largely on monitoring. DNR officials plan to update the plan by December.

Meanwhile, test results released in March showed that 9.4 percent of the 3,133 deer tested last year were infected, the highest prevalence rate since CWD was discovered in the state.

Democratic state Reps. Chris Danou and Nick Milroy brought Walker’s chief-of-staff a series of proposals in April, including double-fencing captive deer farms and adopting Illinois’ strategy of killing as many deer as possible in infected areas.

Evenson referred questions about why the governor refused to adopt the culling strategy to the DNR. Dick said in a follow-up email that culling has proven to be an unpopular and unacceptable option in Wisconsin.

Both Danou and Milroy said the governor’s initiatives are vague and the DNR already is doing most of them, such as gathering public input through the deer councils and studying deer populations.

“We need to be more aggressive,” Danou said. “You’ve got this smoldering fire in the original disease zone growing more intense. That fire is throwing off sparks. Then new fires start.”

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation this month asked Walker to impose regulations to keep CWD from spreading from captive to wild deer, including requiring deer farmers to double-fence their compounds and inspect their fences at least monthly and after major storms to prevent escapes.

Richard Vojtik, president of the Whitetails of Wisconsin Association, which represents game farms, said earlier this month that double-fencing would cost farms millions of dollars and wouldn’t guarantee disease containment.

The governor’s plan contains no specific call for double-fencing mandate. Vojtik said Friday that nobody would have a problem with more inspections and developing best practices as long as they’re based on science.

George Meyer, the federation’s executive director, called Walker’s plans a “a good step” but stressed that deer farm regulations must get tougher.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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