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Inside the Outdoors: In acting on CWD, county commissioners show courage our state legislators lack

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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The county commissioners of another county—this time Carlton County, southwest of Duluth—have voted unanimously to impose a one-year moratorium on establishing new captive deer and elk farms within county borders. It’s a clear indication that these commissioners share the widespread concern that such livestock operations are a potential threat to our wild whitetail deer.

The spread of the fatal ailment known as chronic wasting disease, or CWD, to wild Minnesota whitetails has consistently correlated with CWD’s presence on captive deer and elk farms, and with farm-to-farm movement of infected animals across the state. Such farms raise these animals both for meat and for trophy antlers, the latter obtained under pay-to-hunt circumstances within fenced farm boundaries. There are currently some 250 such operations in Minnesota.

CWD is a degenerative disease of the brain and nervous system that gradually weakens and eventually kills all deer that become infected. CWD is typically spread by direct contact between deer, or when deer come into contact with residues left on the ground by infected animals.

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Carlton County now joins St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, in restricting new captive deer and elk farms. Aitkin County and Itasca County are also considering similar moratoriums. These counties share the characteristic of being popular destinations for deer hunters, who pump substantial revenue into local businesses in pursuit of their sport.

Carlton County’s Land Commissioner, quoted this week in Minnesota Outdoor News, noted that roughly one-third of the properties in his county are owned for the purpose of deer hunting, and that if CWD becomes prevalent in wild deer there, then hunter interest—and consequently land ownership demand—will decline.

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These counties have taken on the issue because state legislators have failed to meaningfully address the spread of CWD, despite a number of counties requesting that the Legislature enact a temporary moratorium on new captive deer and elk farms, so that a statewide solution—with statewide uniformity—can be reached.

The urgency is apparent not only to those who hunt deer, but to those who benefit from the economic engine that Minnesota deer hunting is, an engine that generates some $500 million in equipment, lodging, meals, fuel and other related purchases. Once restricted to a very few wild deer, mostly in the Southeast, CWD has now been found in wild deer in seven counties that stretch from south to north, the most recent discovery being near Grand Rapids. The appearance of CWD in wild deer has been a close match in state geography with its presence in captive deer and elk farms, which is unlikely to be coincidence.

Many believed a statewide moratorium on new captive deer and elk farms was about to happen in May of this year, when the GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate was set to approve it as part of a broader agriculture bill. Five Senate Republicans had cast preliminary votes for the moratorium, enough to ensure passage. But an eleventh-hour recess was called by Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller of Winona, after which four of the five Republicans switched their votes, enough to remove the moratorium from the bill.

Winona, Miller’s political base, is in the heart of captive deer and elk farming in Minnesota. And Senator Miller’s brother owns and operates a captive deer farm. It’s hard to imagine a more direct conflict of interest for Senator Miller.

The lone Republican to maintain her vote in support of the moratorium was Senator Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point, near Brainerd. Ruud has been one of most consistently pro-conservation, pro-sportsman Minnesota legislators, but has retired from the Senate after her party failed to endorse her as their candidate in a newly-realigned Senate district. Many saw this as a retaliatory payback for her willingness to buck party leadership when her values conflicted with the party line on issues. Ruud was quoted as saying that there is currently “no place in the Minnesota Republican Party for anybody who cares about the environment.”

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Mike Rahn, columnist

A statewide solution for attacking the spread of CWD would be the best solution, whether it is a temporary moratorium, a permanent ban on new captive deer and elk farms or—as some feel is our only hope to contain CWD—a buyout and an end to such farming altogether in Minnesota. Deer do not recognize county boundaries, so—as positive as county moratoriums are—a statewide solution is really what is needed.

These county commissioners deserve a big “thank you.” We can only hope that their courage is contagious, and that it eventually infects state legislators of both parties.

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