Whenever the Legislature finally, and mercifully, ends its business in St. Paul, its lack of decisive action to contain chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Minnesota’s 1-million-animal-plus white-tailed deer herd will be among its major failures.
Now confirmed in 51 wild deer in the state and untold numbers of captive deer, CWD is on the wrong trajectory, threatening not only Minnesota’s $1 billion deer-hunting business and culture but, possibly, Minnesotans themselves.
Ever beholden, it seems, to the state’s agriculture industry, legislators, especially Republicans, have for years failed to act in even minimal ways to protect the public, passing on repeated proposals to at least require double-fencing of captive cervid operations, and failing as well to ensure the state Board of Animal Health, which oversees Minnesota deer and elk farms (kind of), does its job.
Most recent case in point, Trophy Woods Ranch in Crow Wing County.
On April 16, federal sharpshooters arrived at Trophy Woods following an agreement with the owner, Kevin Schmidt, that white-tailed and mule deer on his facility would be killed and tested for CWD. Taxpayers would foot the bill for the slaughter and pay Schmidt for the animals.
The first CWD-infected deer at Trophy Woods was discovered in 2016, and in February a wild deer near the ranch was found to be infected.
Upon their arrival, the sharpshooters found 13 deer were already lying dead at the farm and decomposing so badly samples couldn’t be taken for CWD testing.
Dead captive deer are supposed to be reported within two weeks to the Board of Animal Health, but Schmidt had issued no notice, for which he was issued a slap on the wrist by the Board of Animal Health that carries no penalty.
Subsequently, 89 deer were killed by the sharpshooters, and seven were CWD-positive. The prions that cause CWD remain on the ground for years, but Schmidt has since moved bison and cattle onto his ranch. Board of Animal Health regulations don’t prevent this because CWD hasn’t been shown to affect these animals — or humans. Yet.
The CWD-infected wild deer found in Crow Wing County in February was believed to have been infected by captive deer at Trophy Woods, and was the first such animal outside of the southeast to be confirmed with CWD. In the southeast, where containment of the disease no longer seems possible, despite the well-planned and executed efforts of the DNR, 50 wild deer have been confirmed with CWD.
The whole thing is a joke, and Gov. Tim Walz appears unwilling or incapable of showing leadership on the issue — though, not incidentally, he has had time recently to declare his Department of Natural Resources incapable of managing Minnesota wolves, and that they should continue their fairy tale life as a protected class.
In this race to the kill barn, Minnesota’s ag industry is backing the wrong horse, as are its legislative and statehouse lap dogs. One needs only to look to Wisconsin, where CWD is endemic in large portions of its deer herd, to see what lies in store for Minnesota if our collective failure to act continues.
Even in Illinois, which regularly deploys its DNR field staff to kill wild deer in an attempt to control CWD — an effort far more aggressive than Minnesota’s — the disease continues to spread.
No comfort should be taken in the increased budget request Walz has made of lawmakers this session to pay for DNR efforts to manage the CWD hot zones the agency has rightly established. Even at $4.75 million, it’s little more than maintenance money; chump change in the scheme of things.
What’s needed is increased funding for accelerated state and federal research efforts to combat CWD. Additionally, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, has proposed a voluntary buyout plan for Minnesota deer and elk farmers, and it should be enacted and funded. And — at a minimum — double fencing should be required around existing cervid operations to protect wild deer.
Don’t count on any of it.