MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wildlife officials’ proposal to let people keep wild deer if they pay a fine is getting a cool reception from lawmakers, who say it amounts to selling off a public resource.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker told the Department of Natural Resources to find less controversial ways of handling captive deer following a public outcry when agents seized a deer from a Kenosha animal shelter and euthanized it this past summer.
The agency has suggested legislators change state law to let people keep deer if they pay a fine and meet certain other requirements, such as keeping the deer enclosed and getting a veterinarian to check the animal out. The idea has sparked outrage among environmentalists and outdoorsmen. The DNR’s own board has adopted a resolution opposing the idea, and Republican leaders said lawmakers don’t appear interested in creating a bill.
“The action plan as proposed would be very difficult to sell as legislation,” said Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. “This whole issue of wild game being a resource in the wild and not for private keeping goes back a hundred years. It would be very difficult to reverse that standard.”
It’s currently illegal to capture wild animals in Wisconsin. Licensed rehabilitators can hold deer temporarily but must return them to the wild. Rehabilitators in counties with chronic wasting disease rehabilitators can’t hold deer at all because of concerns about spreading the disease.
The regulations have led to some high-profile conflicts over the past decade. The DNR ordered six deer at an animal shelter near Lake Geneva killed in 2004 because at least one of them came from a CWD zone. Then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, signed a bill sparing the animals.
A pardon from Walker spared another deer in 2011. The DNR had planned to euthanize an orphaned fawn from a CWD zone because the Lake Geneva man who took her in couldn’t legally keep her and she couldn’t be released. Walker acted after the Chicago Tribune ran a column arguing for the animal’s life.
The latest dust-up started when an Illinois family brought a fawn named Giggles to the Saint Francis Society animal shelter in Kenosha. DNR agents showed up at the shelter with a search warrant, seized Giggles and killed her. Agency officials said they had no choice because Giggles came from a CWD zone.
The fawn’s fans criticized the DNR in blog postings and set up a “Justice for Giggles” Facebook page. Walker ordered his cabinet heads, including DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, to find options to ensure another such incident never happens.
The DNR proposed staff return deer to the wild as long as the animals don’t pose a threat to public or wildlife health. Euthanasia would be acceptable only when an animal was sick or posed a health risk. The agency’s board adopted those changes in September.
But the agency also suggested legislators change state law to allow people to keep wild deer as pets if they pay a $175 fine and an annual $150 registration fee, keep the deer on at least a half-acre of enclosed land and buy a $450 DNR fencing certificate. Animals would have to pass health checks and their owners would have to plead guilty to a violation in court and pay any additional files related to that.
The idea left environmentalists and sportsmen’s groups aghast. They argued the plan could spread disease and violates long-held conservation tenants that wildlife is held in the public trust.
“It’s public relations over science,” said Shahla Werner, executive director of the Wisconsin Sierra Club chapter.
DNR Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney said the agency got the idea from Michigan, which agreed last summer that a family could keep an illegally held fawn if the animal passed health checks and stayed in an enclosed area. The state also required the family to pay a fee and acknowledged that possessing wildlife is illegal.
Moroney said society simply won’t tolerate euthanasia anymore.
Still, the DNR board adopted a resolution in September opposing the pet deer plan, calling the proposal an effort to privatize Wisconsin’s wild deer.
Board President Preston Cole told The Associated Press the idea violates “wildlife ethics 101.” He plans to convene a discussion on whether the DNR is moving away from science-based policy in favor of more socially acceptable rules.
Legislators also aren’t keen on the idea. Kedzie said he didn’t know of any senators working on a deer-as-pets bill. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said no one in that chamber was taking up the issue either.
Given that, DNR Lands Division Administrator Kurt Thiede said he hopes those officials will support the agency the next time a deer is seized.
“We still have a situation here where the public doesn’t want us to euthanize a domesticated deer,” Moroney said. “If this isn’t the right solution, what is?”.