For the first time, a wild deer with chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found in Minnesota outside the southeastern corner of the state, heightening concern over the spread of the fatal neurological condition.
The disease was discovered Jan. 23 in an adult doe in Merrifield, Minn., near Brainerd and less than a mile from a private game and breeding farm known to have had infected deer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Friday afternoon.
Previous cases have been concentrated mainly in Fillmore County, near the state’s border with Iowa and Wisconsin. In the past two months additional cases were found in neighboring Houston and Winona counties.
Responding to the discovery, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday proposed a plan to ramp up efforts to combat the disease and protect the state’s wild deer population. Walz’s plan would increase state funding by $4.57 million over the next two years and set aside $1.1 million annually thereafter to increase surveillance, “rapid response” to new cases, enforcement and outreach programs.
The bolstered response would almost certainly mean more sharpshooting programs to thin herds in high-risk areas, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager.
DNR officials have been monitoring and testing wild deer around the Merrifield game farm since two of its deer tested positive for CWD in 2016. The 112-acre farm, Trophy Woods Ranch, is one of eight game farms in the state that have had infected deer, and is the only one that has not opted to depopulate and destroy its herd after the infections were found, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, which regulates the farms.
Instead, Trophy Woods, where patrons pay to hunt trophy whitetails and mule deer, has been operating under quarantine and entered into a management plan with Animal Health. Despite the quarantine, seven more deer at the farm tested positive in November.
The management plan was reviewed and the quarantine has been extended for another five years, said Mackenzie Reberg, a veterinarian for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
“We’ll continue working closely with the producer,” Reberg said.
The farm’s owner, Kevin Schmidt, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Walz is also proposing to increase funding to Animal Health by $208,000 in 2020 and $529,000 starting in 2021 to increase the board’s monitoring practices in land surrounding captive deer.
The infected wild deer was found dead about a half-mile from Trophy Woods Ranch, Cornicelli said.
He said he’s hopeful that the doe didn’t spread the disease to other wild deer because it was found close to the ranch and because females typically don’t roam as far as males.
“The fact that we’ve done so much surveillance in the area since it popped positive … and haven’t found anything until now … it is not likely that it’s very widespread, but it’s not impossible,” he said.
The DNR has tested nearly 9,000 deer in the area over the past two years.
The agency will begin aerial surveillance of the wild deer population in the Merrifield and Brainerd area to find out where deer are concentrated. Once that is known, officials will decide how to manage the herd, Cornicelli said.
Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, who represents part of north-central Minnesota, called the deer’s discovery “very concerning.” Heintzeman has introduced legislation to fund a University of Minnesota research project that aims to develop a fast, inexpensive test for CWD in a living animal.