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New DNR chief waiting for science on chronic wasting disease

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Department of Natural Resources' new leader said Tuesday he knows people want the agency to do more to control chronic wasting disease but that he needs science to justify new strategies and spending.

Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, attacks deer's brains and eventually kills them. The state has been grappling with the ailment since it was discovered near Mount Horeb in 2002. The disease has now affected 56 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, but Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' state budget offers no new funding or proposals for slowing the spread. Evers has taken pointed questions from Republicans about his hands-off approach.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole, an Evers appointee, told reporters that he knows people want the DNR to "step on the gas."

But he said previous strategies to fight the disease — most notably efforts to thin the wild herd in the early 2000s and banning inter-county carcass movement — have only alienated hunters. Legislators have told him not to spend "another dime on CWD until we figure out where we're going."

He reiterated that the DNR is waiting to see what research in other states reveals about CWD and how it spreads.

"We want to sort through this very carefully, very methodically," he said. "What do they know that we don't know? If I have to ask for more money ... we've done the legwork to see what other states are doing."

Thinning the herd has benefits, Cole said, but he wouldn't say he supports for a proposal from retired DNR biologists to pay bounties for CWD-infected deer. He said DNR staff will evaluate the idea's feasibility.

He went on to lament that the state allows baiting and feeding in the CWD era. Scientists believe baiting and feeding leads to deer congregating over food piles, increasing the chance of disease transmission through nose-to-nose contact.

The secretary then pivoted to factory farms, signaling a potential shift in how the DNR approaches permitting for such facilities. He hinted that new permitting regulations may be needed in Kewaunee County and southwest Wisconsin, two areas that are both grappling with widespread drinking water contamination.

He walked that back a few moments later, explaining he meant the DNR plans to work with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation to let potential factory farmers know what regulations they face, how they can meet them and the costs.

Karen Gefvert, the farm bureau's director of government relations, said in a telephone interview that Cole met with the bureau's board in March and had broad conversations about ensuring the bureau engages with the DNR on water pollution and the need for research on best practices for farmers.

Cole touched on a number of other issues, including:

— A new wolf season. The U.S. Interior Department plans to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states/ Wisconsin law requires the DNR to hold a season if management reverts back to the state. Asked if he supports a hunt, Cole said he supports following the law.

— Lead pipe replacement. Evers' budget calls for borrowing $40 million to replace lead pipes statewide. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos isn't on board, saying he's worried too much money would go toward replacing pipes in Milwaukee and the initiative is too expensive. Cole said that's a discussion between Evers and Vos.

— Climate change. The DNR under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker scrubbed language from its website stating humans are causing climate change. Cole said he believes humans are affecting the climate but wouldn't say if he would bring back the language saying humans are causing the phenomenon. "Wouldn't you like to be surprised to see what happens (with the website)?" he said.

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

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