On Dec. 30, Mike Wondrow and his two dogs, Drake, an 11-week-old German wirehaired pointer, and Avery, a 2-year-old chocolate Lab, were intending to hike for pheasants on the Gordon W. Yaeger Wildlife Management Area, much of which lies in the Rochester city limits.
The hunt hadn’t yet begun when the young wirehair sniffed out an unexpected find: a pile of about 30 dead whitetail deer carcasses and deer heads, along with a handful of frozen Canada geese, a duck and a discarded rubber glove.
Some of the carcasses, Wondrow said, had their throats slit, apparently so glands could be removed for chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing. At least three heads and/or carcasses had hunter’s site tags attached to them, identifying who had killed the animals. The remaining carcasses were intact and in various stages of decomposition, along with the waterfowl.
Believing he had stumbled onto a bone yard of poached wildlife, Wondrow, 31, called the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), leaving a phone message for a local conservation officer.
“I never did hear back,’’ Wondrow said Thursday.
So he contacted KAAL-TV in Rochester, which first reported the story. He also posted a video of the dead animals on his Facebook page, which was viewed some 11,000 times.
Said Wondrow: “What bothers me is the deer were dumped on the wildlife management area about 5 feet from a trail used by quite a few people, including kids.’’
Wondrow did the right thing, reporting the wildlife dump site.
But he was surprised to learn it wasn’t the work of poachers, but the DNR itself. Some of the animals had been discarded by conservation officers and some by employees of the agency’s Rochester area wildlife office.
“Both enforcement and wildlife have used this site for a number of years,’’ said DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen, adding that road authorities statewide, as well as DNR employees, typically dump road-killed and other unusable wildlife on state lands for “natural’’ disposition.
In this case, however, the DNR acknowledges, mistakes were made. Some of the dumped deer had indeed been checked for CWD, they said, and the heads and carcasses of those animals should have been disposed of in the Olmsted County Kalmar Landfill, an action that belatedly occurred Wednesday. Such disposal is important because CWD “prions’’ can adhere to soil and the ground itself can become an infection source for grazing deer, elk and moose.
Rumors abound in the Rochester area that the deer were dumped before their CWD tests were complete. Niskanen denies this, saying deer in the pile that had been tested were negative for the disease.
Niskanen also said the site no longer will be used for deer and other wildlife disposal. In fact, the DNR this week is reviewing its policy on dumping wildlife that for one reason or another can’t be donated for consumption.
DNR lead wildlife researcher Lou Cornicelli said Thursday the deer heads at the site apparently originated from “head boxes’’ the DNR placed in the southeast in late November after two CWD-positive deer were killed by hunters near Lanesboro earlier that month. Muzzleloader and archery hunters — whose seasons still were open at the time — were asked to deposit heads of the animals in the boxes for testing by the DNR in Rochester.
This was before Cornicelli and his staff established a CWD disease management zone in the southeast, the nearest border of which lies some 30 miles from Rochester.
Carcasses from deer killed in the special hunt that started Saturday in the disease management zone and runs until Jan. 15 are not allowed to leave the zone until the animal is declared disease free, which takes three to five days.
The DNR hopes some 900 adult deer are killed in the hunt — a large enough sample, researchers say, to determine whether CWD is widespread in the region.
Deer killed in the hunt can be butchered at a DNR registration office in Preston, with the meat removed immediately from the disease zone. But the animal’s spine, brain and related material — generally where CWD resides in a carcass — must be deposited in a dumpster at the Preston site.
“The dumpster is taken to the Rochester landfill, which is a ‘lined’ facility,’’ Cornicelli said, acknowledging that some of the spines and brains might prove to be from CWD infected animals.
“We have three permitted methods of disposing of animals tested for CWD,’’ Cornicelli said. “One is incineration. Another is the alkaline ‘digester’ at the U. The third is a lined landfill.’’
The mistake made in Rochester, as Niskanen and others in the DNR said, was that the heads and carcasses of the first deer tested for CWD should have been dumped in the Rochester landfill, not willy-nilly on a wildlife management area, and especially not in or near an area regularly visited by hunters and others.
Wondrow said Thursday he’s given up expecting a return call from the DNR. However, he said, the agency seems to be aware he tried to contact them.
“A conservation officer has driven by my house three times,’’ he said.