CHATFIELD, MINN. – A self-proclaimed “world authority” on whitetail deer who once reviewed Wisconsin’s failed fight against chronic wasting disease says stories about the spread of CWD in the Badger State are overblown and that the most diseased areas west of Madison still are producing lots of big bucks.
James “Dr. Deer” Kroll, a forest wildlife management professor from Texas who has business ties to deer farming and private hunting ranches, also preaches that CWD is not highly contagious and that the disease isn’t as devastating as media portray it. He says it’s futile to fight CWD with extensive culling and eradication strategies, but that there’s merit to the idea of genetically breeding CWD resistance into more whitetails.
Whether he wanted to or not, Kroll last week inserted himself into Minnesota’s biggest-ever battle against CWD by commanding an auditorium stage in Chatfield for an open informational meeting titled, “The Facts and Fiction about CWD — Living and Hunting in the New Age with CWD.”
His lecture castigating costly, “hair on fire” overreactions to CWD didn’t directly malign the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but it was delivered precisely at a time when the DNR is trying to maintain public support for its decidedly aggressive plan to kill upward of 900 deer in the hills, woods and fields around this southeastern Minnesota town.
DNR biologists say the herd reduction is vital for ending an outbreak of CWD clustered deep inside Fillmore County. CWD is entrenched in parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and other states, but Minnesota still is battling to keep it out.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting a second opinion,” said Gary Olson, a Fillmore County deer breeder who farms whitetails for “genetics,” venison, fenced-in hunting and other purposes. Olson opposes the DNR’s deep culling strategy in his area and he helped host Kroll’s visit, sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association and the Iowa Deer Farmers Association. The two groups belong to an industry that gets blamed for spreading CWD to populations of wild deer.
Kroll, a TV personality, shared the stage Wednesday night with Dr. Clifford Shipley, an Illinois veterinarian, professor and whitetail herd owner who said CWD — a fatal brain disease spread by contact with harmful prions in saliva, feces, urine, soil and the discarded carcasses of infected animals — will be in every U.S. state whether agencies fight it or not.
There’s no evidence CWD harms humans or livestock, Shipley said, so why spend the money trying to eradicate it?
“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Shipley, who is the attending veterinarian at University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
Potter Auditorium in Chatfield holds more than 550 people. A local police officer estimated Wednesday’s meeting turnout at 250, with many attendees leaving early. DNR officials and an assistant director of the state Board of Animal Health attended as part of the audience and didn’t ask questions of Kroll and Shipley.
The evening began with Kroll rebuking at least one attendee for distributing to the crowd a list of 23 questions challenging Kroll’s usual teachings. One question, written anonymously by a deer hunter who lives in southeastern Minnesota, asked Kroll: “Why are you here?”
“The state wildlife agency has the responsibility to manage wildlife populations for future generations,” the question said. “You are a privately paid consultant in an area where you’ve never managed the state’s resources, why are you here?”
Kroll refused to answer any of the questions, saying they must have been written by a group “scared of us.”
“I’m not going to suffer fools at a meeting like this,” he said.
Kroll said after the meeting that he hasn’t studied Minnesota’s current outbreak.
“I don’t know if I want to get involved,” he said. But he also said shooting 900 to 1,000 deer was overkill for extinguishing a localized outbreak.
On the other hand, Kroll commended the DNR for taking action once big-game managers detected a CWD-positive deer west of Lanesboro during last fall’s hunting season. Since then, surveillance within a 10-mile radius of that discovery has uncovered seven more infected whitetails in a tight cluster. Federal sharpshooters will concentrate on killing more deer in that area starting within the next week or two. Two special hunts since Dec. 31 already have removed more than 840 whitetails from the disease-management zone.
“Yeah, jump on it. It’s time to get on it,” Kroll said from the stage during a question-and-answer session. “Don’t just stand there, do something…. Put the spark out.”
Most of his talk recapped his experience in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012 when he was hired by Gov. Scott Walker to study and report on deer management, including the state’s handling of a major CWD outbreak in wild deer detected in 2002.
Wisconsin spent millions upon millions of dollars between 2002 and 2006 trying to eradicate the disease in counties west of Madison where it was detected. Special hunts killed 27,000 deer inside the disease zone but CWD persisted and infection rates inside the disease zone have only accelerated.
Kroll’s view is that government threw money at an intractable problem — and one that he believes never posed a dire threat. Kroll said CWD has proved not to be highly contagious in the infected zone and that herds there continue to produce large numbers of trophy bucks. He said CWD has the potential to crop up anywhere, perhaps spontaneously and unrelated to herd density. In the long run, he said, natural selection could take care of the disease when more deer develop resistance to it.
Michael Samuel, a researcher and University of Wisconsin wildlife ecologist, told Kroll during the question and answer session that he and others who have been heavily involved in the study of CWD inside Wisconsin’s disease zone don’t share his views. Samuel said 25 percent of adult bucks in the zone are now carrying the disease. And in Iowa County, there’s a 50 percent prevalence of CWD in adult bucks, he said.
Samuel said the infection rate is markedly lower in adult females, but there’s evidence CWD will accelerate and reach an infection rate of 20 or 30 percent in the doe population. At that level, there will be numerical declines in herds, he said. Ultimately, he said, the age of bucks in the disease zone will decline and more will have the disease.
“We’re in the acceleration phase,” Samuel said after the meeting.
Samuel also told Kroll that Minnesota’s current, localized outbreak is quite different from the outbreak detected in Mount Horeb, Wis., in 2002. State and federal officials didn’t know it at the time, but CWD had been established in the herd 20 years before it was detected.
Samuel said the Minnesota outbreak is new and he lauded the DNR for trying to wipe it out.
“Do everything you can early on to get rid of it,” Samuel said. “My recommendation is to be as aggressive as possible.”
Before the audience dispersed, Kroll entered the crowd to find Samuel and shake his hand. Both men agreed that the U.S. needs a national plan on how to battle and manage CWD. Before parting, they talked about going out for a beer the next time they’re both in Madison.