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Inside the Outdoors: Deer disease accelerating its escape from Pandora’s box

Inside the Outdoors

For many years, the always-fatal deer-killing ailment called chronic wasting disease (CWD) seemed a remote and distant problem, confined as it was to Minnesota’s Southeast region near Rochester. Today it is becoming a border to border epidemic-in-the-making, a potential disaster for Minnesota deer hunters and for the tourism that deer hunting generates; an epidemic that might have been contained—but wasn’t.

CWD is a neurological disease of deer, elk, and moose that causes brain deterioration, leading to emaciation, loss of bodily functions, abnormal behavior, and early death. A recent study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources suggests that the death rate of CWD-infected deer may be three times the death rate of healthy deer.

The news that CWD was recently found in captive deer that died on a game farm in northern Minnesota’s Beltrami County—in the Bemidji area—means that the disease has a known presence in Houston, Winona, Olmsted, Dakota, Stearns, Crow Wing, and now Beltrami Counties, stretching from the Southeast, through the Twin Cities, the St. Cloud area, and on up to Northern Minnesota. What most of these areas have in common is captive deer and elk farms, and infected “livestock” found on them.

If infected deer were found only on these farms, the issue would not be as problematic. But—as has been the experience in neighboring Wisconsin—the highly infectious disease spreads readily when wild and tame deer make contact through fences, or when wild deer encounter the disease vector, which can be shed when infected deer urinate. These vectors can remain in the soil for years. As of last November, when a hunter-harvested deer in Dakota County tested positive for CWD, 95 wild Minnesota deer have been confirmed post-mortem to have been infected. This is almost certainly an under-estimate of the total with CWD. In Wisconsin, a state that has been less aggressive than Minnesota in attempting to control the disease, well over half its counties have had confirmed CWD cases in wild deer.

Can CWD infect humans through the consumption of venison? Most believe that it can’t, or that it can certainly be avoided by not consuming a deer’s neurological tissue. A much-publicized study by the University of Calgary—which suggested that CWD could be transmitted to a species of monkey—has been largely discredited. But even if humans are immune, if CWD triples the death rate of whitetail deer, that’s a huge problem.


The security measures taken by the state’s deer and elk farmers to control the spread of CWD have been mixed at best. Only some farms have the double fences that are intended to keep captive and wild deer apart. Instances of fences in poor repair, and of dead captive deer not being timely reported for testing, are not a rarity. One of the deer recently found dead on the Beltrami County farm was reported to be too decomposed for testing, which is likely a violation of rules for these farms. Such deaths are to be reported within 14 days so that CWD testing can be done.

The State Board of Animal Health, which has oversight over diseases in state livestock, has responsibility for ensuring that these farms comply with safety requirements. But the agency has been criticized for what critics have contended is a bias in favor of deer and elk farmers, and inadequate concern for protection of the state’s wild deer herd.

As a result of the CWD discovery in Beltrami County, a surveillance zone will be set up in the area around the infected farm, and hunter-harvested deer will be tested by personnel from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This will be done over a three-year period, and would be discontinued if no wild deer are found infected with CWD.

The 77-animal Beltrami County captive herd is under quarantine, which means that no animals can be removed from the farm. A common practice among those who raise captive deer and elk is inter-state and intra-state farm-to-farm sales and transfers, which has become the leading suspect in the spread of CWD into, and within, Minnesota.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, discovery of infected wild deer near captive deer farms has led to intensive special harvests—“culling”—outside the framework of the deer seasons, in order to eliminate other potentially infected deer, and thereby reduce the risk of further CWD spread among wild deer. It’s a precautionary practice that is understandably unpopular with deer hunters.

The irony of CWD management in Minnesota is that one agency—the Board of Animal Health—has responsibility for oversight of the deer and elk farms where CWD has been most in evidence, and a different agency—the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—has the mission of protecting the wild deer herd for hunters and the general public.

As has been the case elsewhere in Minnesota with previous CWD discoveries, the burden falls on the DNR to conduct the CWD surveillance that will take place during the deer hunting season in Beltrami County, taking tissue samples from harvested deer for testing. This is an expense in manpower and other DNR resources, apparently to be absorbed by an agency whose budgets are already stretched thin, and routinely contested in the Minnesota Legislature.

Case in point: the GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate is proposing that the vital fight against CWD be funded not by targeted appropriations aimed at this threat, but by taking dollars from the DNR’s Game & Fish Fund. This means that license dollars from the state’s hunters and anglers would be fighting CWD instead of being used as intended, which is to manage fish and game resources. This, despite the fact that Minnesota hunters and anglers did not create the CWD problem.


The most foolproof solution would be to buy out and eliminate existing captive deer and elk farms in Minnesota, and prohibit the establishing of new ones. Simply owning land does not entitle anyone to pursue a livelihood that carries such large risks that could reach so far beyond their own fence lines. Unfortunately, that kind of political risk is not something we’re used to seeing most Minnesota politicians take.

Is it realistic to expect that Minnesota will fare better than Wisconsin, and will somehow get the upper hand and contain the spread of CWD? Hope springs eternal, but will take more than hope. It will take a willingness to pay the price in both dollars and political courage.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

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