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Ag, DNR boards discuss joint issues

Feb. 23, 2012 | 0 comments

Two boards, whose decisions routinely affect state farmers, met together Tuesday (Feb. 21) in Madison.

The citizen policy boards for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) talked about nutrient manage-ment, farmland preservation and chronic wasting disease (CWD) and how each agency approaches each of those areas.

"It was nine years and 51 weeks ago that we heard about CWD," said Dr. Bob Ehlenfeldt, the state veterinarian at DATCP.

The disease, caused by a tangled prion protein in the central nervous system of deer and their relatives, is related to other prion diseases like so-called "mad cow" disease and scrapie in sheep.

The incurable, neurological disease can only be diagnosed after the death of the animal. Discovery of the disease has affected both wild deer herds and those that are raised in captivity by farmers.

The state currently has 536 registered deer farms with 21,335 animals - mostly white-tail deer, but also elk and other species in the cervid family.

Over 37,000 farm-raised deer have been tested and 99 positives have been found on nine farms, with three farms accounting for 91 of those positives, which were also epidemiologically linked, the vet said.

The last positive deer on a farm was found in 2008.

There is never-ending talk of a federal CWD rule and that talk began in 1998, Ehlenfeldt said. A rule with "significant flaws" was released in 2006 and was quickly withdrawn.

Tom Hauge, director of wildlife management at DNR said his agency had tested 50,000 wild deer in the first year after the disease was discovered and a total of 172,000 deer over the last 10 years.

All of the positive animals have been found in the southern one-third of the state and there has been testing in other parts of the state to determine if it has spread.

In the beginning DNR deployed legions of specially hired workers to take brain stems from killed deer.

Today they test animals by sampling lymph nodes.

Because of tight budgets, Hauge said the DNR is working with taxidermists in various parts of the state who have access to big, older bucks - a population that would likely carry the disease if it is present in a given area.

Management of the disease in wild deer has involved trying to get hunters to harvest antlerless deer. Hauge explained that young bucks are the animals most likely to leave their area of origin and thus carry the disease to other places.

"We're hopeful that what we've been doing is slowing the increase," Hauge said.

Sixteen percent of adult bucks in the "core" CWD area have the disease, he added.

"I don't think most folks would like to set that as a goal." The agency has come to the conclusion that CWD is "endemic" in the core area where it was first discovered.

"We can't turn back the clock and remove it from that area. Our objective is to contain rather than eradicate," Hauge said.

Some DNR board members voiced concern that federal funding for CWD programs, including indemnification for farm-raised deer, was drying up and could affect management of the disease on farms.

Ehlenfeldt said that he heard that same concern 30 years ago with regard to pseudorabies, a hog disease, but the disease was still eradicated. The lab test for CWD in Wisconsin is two- to three-times cheaper than in other labs, he noted.

Farmland preservation programs

Members of both boards also talked about farmland preservation and heard a discussion of the programs that were enacted as part of the Working Lands Initiative.

The Farmland Preservation Program, which offers farmers a tax credit for preserving farmland, has been around since the 1970s.

The height of that tax credit program came in the 1980s when 25,000 farmers were enrolled and received tax credits of $35 million.

Those programs were revamped by the 2009 law.

Some DNR board members wondered if hunting access has ever been discussed as a condition of participation in the program. Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said he didn't believe it had.

The discussion of farmland preservation led several board members to talk about a clash between farmland and natural areas when utility construction goes on in the state.

"In a state that needs to bring in more energy because we produce so little of it what's more sacred - undeveloped natural area or working lands?" asked Bill Briuns, a dairy farmer (and president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau) who sits on the DNR board.

John Koepke, a member of the ag board said his farmland was impacted in 2003 by a large natural gas pipeline that could have gone through an environmental corridor. The contractor was willing to directionally bore for over a mile to minimize disturbance of this area, he said.

"Community members and contractors were ready to play ball but it ended up on my farmland."

When pressed he said the DNR made the decision that the pipeline would stay out of the environmental corridor.

Another ag board member Mike Dummer, said good farmland on his farm north of Arcadia was tapped for a four-lane highway, with a "median in it large enough to raise 10 acres of corn.

"Out East you don't see that kind of land wasted," he added.

The two boards also discussed how land owned by the DNR is managed and how it could be done better as the agency continues to acquire more land.

Cathy Stepp, the DNR secretary, said that many people see the agency buying more and more land and their perception is likened to a person who has a primary home with a leaky roof and they still go out and buy a vacation home.

Ag board member Margaret Krome asked if the two boards would consider writing a joint resolution on what they would like to see in the upcoming Farm Bill debate. She voiced concern about conservation compliance and how it might be affected by Farm Bill funding levels which led to a general conversation about compliance issues.

Pam Garvey, a farmer who sits on the ag board said the whole conversation about farmers who won't do the right thing "strikes me a bit wrong.

"The idea that unless there's money or enforcement that farmers won't do it - I take personal offense to that," she said.

Nutrient management issues

A third item up for discussion at the joint meeting was nutrient management. Ken Johnson, water division administrator at DNR talked about the drinking water standard for nitrates and agency rules on high-capacity wells.

Jim Vandebrook, the water quality section chief at DATCP noted that nutrient management involves a lot of practices all rolled into one heading. The two agencies, along with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have collaborated on a common standard - called 590.

Twenty-one percent of state crop acres are covered by nutrient management plans, he said, and the rate of adoption is increasing.

Bruins and Garvey talked about their experiences of putting in a nutrient management plan.

Garvey said that when she did the planning, she discovered their farm was already doing many of the things that were required by the plan.

Krome said she is involved in a localized effort to talk to farmers and discover what the barriers are to adoption of nutrient management plans. She said farmers told her that plans were too complex and seemed to be written to satisfy agency requirements rather than usefulness to the farmer.

Stepp said she's had meetings with farmers where they needed a "hand truck" to bring in the enormous amount of paperwork required by their plans. Farmers have asked her if the DNR actually looks at all this paper when it evaluates the plans.

Some farmers' nutrient management plans involve "seven giant binders" and Stepp said she "absolutely wants to hear" if there are better ways to do it.

Her agency needs to "rebuild bridges of credibility and trust. We will do better in water quality."

High-capacity wells

Board members also ended up talking about high-capacity wells and a Supreme Court decision that affects how the DNR regulates them. Ken Johnson said there is nothing in that decision that forces the agency to make decisions based on cumulative water use impacts in the Central Sands area of the state.

The agency's take on it is that if lawmakers want the agency to regulate in that way, they will have to pass a law, he said. "There's not enough rain and too many straws in the sand pulling it out. It's a complicated issue."

Ag board member Dick Cates said that issue is "the gorilla in the room" when it comes to the high-capacity well issue.

"At some point we have to be honest and state the obvious. It's not very wise to have too many straws in the sand because we have a rule that says we don't have to regulate that."

Veterinarian David Clausen, who chairs the DNR board, said "we have a history of waiting until something is a crisis" before acting on it.

Several DNR board members said they believed the designation of DNR as an "enterprise agency" will help them respond more quickly to the needs of the state.

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