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In Houston County, chronic wasting disease watchers wait for late hunt test results ... and worry


Hunters in southeastern Minnesota shot about 420 deer just before Christmas in the first of two special late-season hunts to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The hunts were part of the DNR’s plan to slow the spread of the disease, which comes after one of the worst years for it in Minnesota history. The disease causes degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation and ultimately death.

When the year began, there were 17 confirmed cases of the contagious neurological disease in Minnesota’s wild deer herds and those were isolated to a several-mile radius around the small town of Preston.

It was a reasonably small infection and was discovered in 2016. While there was an initial rush to contain it — with special hunts and federal culling — by the start of 2018, the DNR wasn’t really doing much.

Spread continues

“In the spring, we were essentially waiting,” said DNR wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli. “And yeah, it made me nervous. We were just hoping we did enough. Hoping it would get better.”

But things did not get better, he said. This fall two more cases were found in the early archery season. Then, one by one, rifle hunters racked up about a dozen more.

Deer killed in the most recent hunts will all be tested.

The most troubling part, Cornicelli said, is that the new cases were discovered miles from the core of the infected zone.

“This year we (saw) another one at Forestville,” Cornicelli said. “Another west of Harmony. Another west of Chatfield. So now we’re starting to see that spread.”

Professionals called to help

The findings sent a jolt through the DNR.

Within days of discovering the new cases, Cornicelli and his team released a new management plan. They set up two special late-season hunts — one last weekend and one slated for next weekend. They expanded the CWD management zone and opened bag limits so hunters can take as many deer as possible.

Cornicelli contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring in professional hunters to cull deer in the most infected areas.

“It’s expensive,” he said. “But it’s very effective.”

Land ownership can hinder work

The federal culling alone will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It’s a Herculean effort, but the reality is, how the new CWD plan works out isn’t really within the control of the DNR,” he said.

There’s almost no state land in southeastern Minnesota. The agency can’t do anything without help, or at least permission from landowners.

Jim Vagts is a fourth-generation farmer in southeastern Minnesota. This fall, a hunter shot a deer that tested positive for the disease just a mile from his 1,500-acre spread.

Now he’s one of a handful of landowners to come out in vocal support of the DNR’s CWD plan.

“I’ve been hunting since 1957,” he said. “I’m very protective of the sport.”

Vagts spends his winters in Arizona so he didn’t participate in the hunt last weekend. He did invite about 20 men from the local Amish community onto his property to shoot as many deer as they could.

Some landowners aren’t as supportive.

Right after CWD was first found in Minnesota, local landowners and their friends shot something in the neighborhood of 900 deer in a special season. Last year’s special hunt netted fewer than 300.

“It was a total bust,” Vagts said.

‘Live in a very close community’

He said that’s because some people don’t believe the official, scientific narrative around CWD — that it’s incurable, 100 percent fatal and will eventually reduce deer numbers.

Those people thought the DNR was overreacting. They didn’t want to shoot so many deer, and they made their feelings known.

“After that first hunt, the nonbelievers became very unfriendly with those who cooperated with the DNR,” Vagts said. “In a rural area, you live in a very close community.”

A lot of people stopped shooting deer, he said, just to keep the peace with their neighbors.

Vagts said he hopes that spread of the disease will convince the skeptics. And based on the large number of deer shot last weekend, that might be happening.

Cornicelli said support for CWD management does seem to be growing. He said he hopes it’s not too late.

Fight far from over

But there was bad news, too. One of the last cases to be discovered was in Houston County — 40 miles from the original infection area, and just 8 miles from the Wisconsin border.

Cornicelli said he isn’t sure yet where the animal came from. There are genetic tests underway aimed at helping to determine that. There’s a chance it came from Wisconsin.

And that possibility fills Cornicelli with dread.

“The reality is, if it came from Wisconsin, it’s a much bigger deal,” he said.

Up to this point, Minnesota’s CWD problem has been relatively isolated. Something that could, hypothetically, be contained.

If the Houston County deer came across the border that means Cornicelli is no longer trying to keep a small infection at bay. He’d be trying to stop a potential wave of infected animals.

If infected deer are swimming across the Mississippi River, fully stopping the disease may be impossible.

“We know we can’t do this forever,” he said. “But we also know that we can’t do nothing, because that means the disease will spread and we’ll look like Wisconsin.

“So,” he said, “we’re between a rock and a hard place.”


Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

A construction worker works on the roof of the Garden Terrace apartments Monday on Kane Street on La Crosse's North Side. The 50-unit mixed-income housing complex is scheduled for completion in June. The weather will be less conducive to outdoor construction work today, as the National Weather Service predicts rain throughout the day, with a high of 44 degrees.

Person using laser pointer causes Med Flight pilot eye injury, forces cancellation of flight

MADISON — A helicopter ambulance was forced to abandon a flight to pick up a crash victim in Columbia County on Tuesday evening after someone shined a laser at the helicopter, injuring the pilot and forcing its crew to abandon their mission.

A Med Flight helicopter attempted to land in Pardeeville Tuesday evening to pick up a 17-year-old side-by-side utility vehicle crash victim with head injuries when someone on the ground used “a strong laser pointer and shined it towards the helicopter,” said Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards.

He said the laser pointer “created an unsafe condition for the operation of the helicopter,” posing a threat to its “flight and those on the ground.”

The laser pointer injured the helicopter’s pilot, forcing it to return to its base without the crash victim, Richards said.

The helicopter’s crew was using night vision equipment during the flight, he said.

A Columbia County deputy also suffered a leg injury while searching for the suspect, Richards said, and the original crash victim had to be transported by a ground ambulance.

Deputies responded to the crash, which occurred on Crown Road in the town of Scott, at about 5 p.m., Richards said.

Pointing a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal offense that carries a potential five-year prison sentence. In Wisconsin, it’s also a felony to obstruct emergency or rescue personnel.

Pointing a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal offense that carries a potential five-year prison sentence. In Wisconsin, it’s also a felony to obstruct emergency or rescue personnel.

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State utility regulators asked to weigh penalties in Sun Prairie explosion

MADISON — For the first time under a new law, state utility regulators have been asked to consider imposing penalties on the drilling company involved in last summer’s fatal Sun Prairie natural gas explosion.

A panel charged with policing utility notification laws last week sent the Public Service Commission a case based on a complaint filed by USIC Locating Services, the company that was hired to mark the locations of underground pipes prior to the explosion, which killed a firefighter and injured others.

USIC claims drilling company VC Tech violated state law when owner Valentin Cociuba failed to notify the state utility call center, known as Diggers Hotline, before starting work July 10.

Under state law, the commission can issue a fine of $25,000 per violation. VC Tech could face up to $500,000 in fines if the commission finds multiple violations.

The complaint was forwarded to the PSC on Dec. 17, one day before police closed their investigation with no criminal charges. All the companies involved are named as defendants in pending civil lawsuits.

The explosion happened after VC Tech struck an underground gas line while boring a hole for fiber-optic communications cable being installed for Verizon.

According to a police report, USIC did not finish marking gas lines when a subcontractor dropped out of the project. Bear Communications, the primary contractor, then told VC Tech to complete the job believing the marking was complete.

Sun Prairie police determined the incident was the result of miscommunication between utility contractors and subcontractors and the evidence did not support criminal charges.

USIC’s complaint, filed Oct. 30 with Diggers Hotline, alleges VC Tech illegally “piggybacked” on the previous excavator’s work order and failed to notify the call center before beginning work.

State law says excavators must update the hotline if work is interrupted for more than 10 days.

USIC’s attorney claims the company’s operations were disrupted by the explosion and subsequent criminal investigation.

A letter from VC Tech’s attorney denies the company did anything wrong or that USIC has been harmed and called the complaint “specious and submitted in bad faith.”

VC Tech was one of several drilling contractors hired by Bear on the project, which required excavators to start and stop work on short notice, according to the company’s response.

Neither attorney immediately responded Wednesday to calls from the State Journal.

On Oct. 17, authorities unsealed a search warrant filed in July that said a Wisconsin-based worker for USIC failed to correctly mark a gas line in the street where it was actually located and instead marked a spot about 25 feet away on a sidewalk where there was no gas line.

The warrant sought evidence to support a possible charge of second-degree reckless homicide.

The same day police closed the case with no criminal charges, Abigail Barr, the widow of Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Cory Barr, who was killed by the explosion, filed a wrongful death case in civil court against VC Tech, Bear Communications, USIC Locating Services and WEC Energy Group, known as WE Energies.

Volunteer firefighters Ryan Welch and Greg Pavlik also filed lawsuits against the four companies for personal injury.

This is the first case forwarded to the PSC by Diggers Hotline, the nonprofit company in charge of providing utilities information about upcoming excavations.

Anyone who plans to dig in Wisconsin is required by law to contact Diggers Hotline at least three working days before breaking ground. Hotline operators then notify utility companies with nearby lines, and those companies are responsible for having the locations marked.

A law passed earlier this year established an enforcement panel to handle complaints regarding natural gas and other hazardous materials. The panel, formed in July and comprising appointees from various industry groups and local government, met Dec. 12 to consider USIC’s complaint.

Diggers Hotline does not identify panel members.

According to meeting minutes, the panel found probable cause that a violation occurred and voted 4-2, with some members abstaining, to forward the case to the PSC for possible enforcement.

Diggers Hotline spokesman Chad Krueger said this is the first complaint the panel has sent to the PSC. The previous six were resolved by requiring additional training for the violator.

According to the minutes, panel members were “concerned about USIC using the panel’s decision as a piece of evidence in future investigations” and urged the PSC to look at “all parties and angles in this incident.”


Holmen's Kalyn Jahn ties up with Nicolet's Parker Keckeisen and attempts to set up a shot during the Division 1 170-pound championship match Saturday at the Kohl Center. Keckeisen won the match.

New prostate procedure opens spigot, with unexpected bonus

A new procedure at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse can put men in the driver’s seat to control when they answer nature’s call.


“Most patients have immediate improvement” after the outpatient procedure on an enlarged prostate, said Dr. John Schomburg, a urologist who has performed one of the surgeries and has a couple more scheduled.

The procedure, which received approval from the Federal Drug Administration in 2013 and has proved effective with five years of data since then, treats benign prostatic hyperplasia. BPH is an enlarged prostate, which affects about 40 million men in the U.S., including 12 million who are under a doctor’s care.

The enlarged prostate, which is a walnut-sized gland surrounding the urethra, presses on and blocks the urethra, causing urinary problems such as needing to go often.

“BPH is very common and increases with age,” Schomburg said, adding that it affects 40 to 70 percent of men in their 50s and 60s, and more than 80 percent of men in their 80s.

Previous options for the 12 million men being treated included medical therapy, such as taking a daily pill, for 7.3 million men; watchful waiting, which is the course for about 4.5 million men, and elective surgery, which about 310,000 choose.

The new procedure, called UroLift, is preferable to all three, Schomburg said. Minimally invasive, the procedure involves inserting a needle-like device through the urethra, under local anesthetic, and is the only such procedure that doesn’t destroy some tissue.

The camera-guided UroLift device implants two spring-like utensils on each side of the prostrate, in effect pulling back on the gland a bit to open the pipeline. The procedure does not require cutting, heating or removal of prostate tissue, as others do, Schomburg said.

Although patients may experience “a little trepidation” any time such a procedure is involved, Schomburg said it is “fast, effective and durable.”

While recovery is rapid in most cases, the most common adverse effects include blood in urine, discomfort while urinating, pelvic pain and feeling the urge to urinate often, according to material from UroLift, a product of NeoTract in Pleasanton, Calf. Such side effects disappear in two weeks to a month.

UroLift has no sexual side effects, Schomburg said.

“One of the main effects is that the procedure has no sexual side effects,” while other treatment can cause or worsen ejaculatory or erectile dysfunction, he said. “This was not the intent in and of itself, but … it does not improve or make it (ED) worse.”

Gundersen is the only health care facility in the region, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospitals, where the procedure is being done, Schomburg said. The cost varies, depending on insurance coverage, he said.

This artist's depiction of an enlarged prostate gland show how squeezed the urethra is, interrupting urine flow from the bladder (top) for about 40 million men in the United States.

With the patient under local anesthetic, the doctor inserts a needle-like appliance through the urethra, separating the lobes of the walnut-sized prostate gland a bit.

The device delivers spring-like gadgets that pull back the sides of the prostate, giving the urethra more room.

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The end of the insert flips out to secure it.

An identical device is implanted on the other side of the prostate.

With all four implants in place, the urethra has more room to allow urine to move from the bladder and be expelled. Many patients are up and about the same day as the outpatient surgery, says Gundersen urologist John Schomburg.