ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota needs to take comprehensive action this year to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease, lawmakers and hunters said Monday as they promoted legislation aimed at stopping the outbreak of the fatal brain disease before it becomes endemic in the state's whitetail herd.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn is sponsoring several bills that target deer farms to try to stop the disease from spreading from captive to wild deer. Another would give the University of Minnesota $1.8 million to develop faster and more sensitive diagnostic tests that farms and regulators could use on live deer and hunters could use to make sure their venison is safe to eat.
"We have known about CWD for over a decade, almost two decades, and it is now more prevalent in Minnesota than ever," the Roseville Democrat and lifelong deer hunter said at a news conference, flanked by fellow lawmakers and hunters.
Chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in 34 wild deer since it appeared in 2016 in a hot zone between Preston and Lanesboro in Fillmore County of southeastern Minnesota. It's already endemic in parts of Wisconsin. The disease is caused by a misshapen protein called a prion and affects deer and elk. It spreads through saliva, feces or urine, and prions remain infectious in the environment for years. Other diseases caused by prions include mad cow disease.
"This is important on so many levels, and I'm afraid if we don't take this opportunity to address the problem now, it's going to get out of hand," said John Zanmiller, a member of the Bluffland Whitetails Association.
Minnesota has around 500,000 deer hunters. Deer hunting is part of the economic lifeblood in many parts of the state and it's a tradition for many families. While the disease hasn't been shown to infect humans so far, health officials warn against eating infected animals.
At a legislative hearing last week, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, delivered an ominous warning that he said was based on his years of research on the transmission of mad cow disease to humans. He said it's "probable" that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with infected meat will be found eventually and that the number may be "substantial."
Rep. Kaohly Her, a St. Paul Democrat and Hmong-American, said she's been hunting for about 25 years, and her two teenage daughters hunt as well. She said they come from a long line of sustenance hunters who don't waste any part of an animal. Further spread would threaten traditions that are important not only in her family, but to other immigrant families as well.
Becker-Finn's other bills include one to require deer and elk farms to have 10-feet-high double fences, a moratorium on new deer farms with voluntary buyouts for existing operations, switching regulatory oversight from the Board of Animal Health to the Department of Natural Resources, and $1.5 million for control and prevention. She said they stand a good chance in the Democratic-controlled House, but acknowledged that getting support will be harder in the GOP-controlled Senate, where there's resistance to more regulation, interference with property rights and more spending.
Tim Spreck, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, said it's "preposterous" to blame deer and elk farmers for the entire problem when most are doing an excellent job of keeping their herds healthy. He said the double-fencing requirement alone could bankrupt most farmers, and while he said some farmers might be interested in buyouts, they could be "prohibitively expensive" for the state.