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Inside the Outdoors: Is it time to end deer farming?

It came as a very much-unwanted present just after Christmas when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced that chronic wasting disease (CWD) had been found in two deer in a captive herd on a game farm in North Central Minnesota's Crow Wing County. The fear flowing from this latest news is that the disease could, if it has not already, spread to wild deer in the area where this Crow Wing County deer farm is located. PineandLakes.com Illustration

It came as a very much-unwanted present just after Christmas when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced that chronic wasting disease (CWD) had been found in two deer in a captive herd on a game farm in North Central Minnesota's Crow Wing County. CWD is a fatal disease of the brain and nervous system that attacks members of the deer family, including whitetail and mule deer, elk and moose. In its effects CWD is similar — actually related — to "mad cow disease" in cattle. The fear flowing from this latest news is that the disease could, if it has not already, spread to wild deer in the area where this Crow Wing County deer farm is located.

CWD is spread by contact with an infected animal's saliva, urine, blood and feces. Conditions that concentrate deer, such as confining deer within fences, or even recreational and well-intentioned "helping Nature" deer feeding, increase the risk of the disease being transmitted from infected to healthy deer.

Beyond CWD's obvious potential for depleting a deer population due to disease-caused mortality, lies the question of human safety for those who might eat venison from an infected animal. The ambiguity in official statements is less than comforting. It is often stated that CWD is "not known to affect humans, but consuming meat from infected deer is not advised." In plain English this means that a human probably won't be affected, but we can't be sure.

The Minnesota DNR is currently waging a high-stakes battle to keep CWD out of Minnesota's whitetail deer herd. CWD has become common in deer in Southwest Wisconsin and Northeast Iowa, areas that border Southeast Minnesota, the triangular area of our state bounded by the Mississippi River and the Iowa border. Among the precautions being taken, Minnesotans who hunt deer outside our state are prohibited from bringing unprocessed deer into Minnesota.

Just this fall, three wild deer harvested by hunters near Lanesboro in that Southeast region were tested and found to have CWD. The first two were harvested within a mile of one another; the third, just five miles away. This area is south and east of Pine Island, where Minnesota's first confirmed CWD-infected wild whitetail was harvested in 2010, not far from an elk farm where the disease had previously been confirmed in 2009. More than 4,000 deer harvested in that area between 2011 and 2013 seasons were tested, but no more were found to carry CWD.

Until now, that is. With these three new cases during the 2016 hunting season, the management response is a localized "kill-down" of deer in that area. The goal is to harvest and test up to 900 deer in Fillmore County through a special post-season hunt during the first weeks of January. One purpose is to learn whether other wild deer there are infected. And, by lowering the density of deer there, the chance of deer-to-deer contact that could spread the disease may be further reduced. Live deer cannot be tested for CWD, so there is no way to test, then release whitetails, even if they could be captured without injury.

CWD is now found in 24 states. Its actual origin in wild big game animals will probably never be proven. CWD has had an identity as a "western disease," but its dispersal today is north to south, east to west. In a substantial number of states it was first diagnosed in captive big game herds; in some states only in captive herds. But operators of such enterprises will probably argue that discovery in captive herds is easier because in some states — like Minnesota — they are closely regulated, including mandatory testing of deer that die or are slaughtered. And, in CWD's advanced stages, its effects are highly visible.

The deer farming operation in Crow Wing County where the two infected deer were discovered is under quarantine. No animals from its herd of whitetail and mule deer can be shipped from the farm, and none from outside may be received. The five captive big game farms in Minnesota where CWD has previously been found have had their herds "put down." That includes a herd in Aitkin County in 2002, the very first discovery of CWD in any big game animal in Minnesota. It has yet to be announced whether elimination will be the fate of the Crow Wing County herd.

Perhaps not widely known, the Minnesota DNR does not regulate captive big game. That is done by the State Board of Animal Health. In the five instances of herd liquidation noted above, the owners were reportedly compensated up to $3,000 per animal. Whether that sits well or poorly with taxpayers, there's no question that the animals are valuable. Captive deer are raised for venison, for their antlers and for breeding.

There are other, perhaps less obvious, purposes. A game farm in Cass County marketed a deer-attractant scent extracted from its animals. Another purpose for farm-raised big game that some may find unsavory is being "hunted" on private shooting preserves in states that allow it. A close friend tells of stopping at a captive deer farm to purchase deer scent, and being shown one of the owner's prize trophy-antlered bucks. The owner informed him that it was "worth $25,000," and bound for Texas, there to join a herd assembled for pay-to-hunt patrons; perhaps ultimately to be immortalized as a head mount in a den, or over a fireplace. Hunting pen-raised game birds on shooting preserves is widespread in Minnesota, but hunting pen-raised deer is not permitted; many feel rightfully so.

It's too easy, as well as unprofitable, to place the blame entirely on captive big game farmers. The mission to control the spread of CWD in Minnesota should be about prevention, not blame. Captive big game animals, unlike their wild peers, may move many hundreds of miles from one game farm to another, under man's power rather than their own. The conditions under which captive big game are raised are conducive to the spread of CWD. Wild whitetails may have a population density of 25 per square mile in parts of Minnesota. Deer and elk on captive game farms live in cattle-like densities, and frequent contact with one another is a much, much higher probability. It is that close contact that most effectively spreads CWD.

Since deer can't be tested for CWD while alive, the disease's control is a matter of creating the best possible odds, not managing at a micro level with individual animals. The two most dangerous variables for CWD spread, long-distance mobility and close contact, are conditions of the captive game farm industry, not the deer's natural environment. There are currently over 400 facilities in Minnesota that have captive deer, elk, or both. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on granting permits for any more. Radical as it may sound, perhaps even a buyout of existing big game farms, to limit one potential vector in the unwanted spread of CWD to Minnesota's signature big game animal, the whitetail deer.

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