Minnesota’s multimillion-dollar fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD) has hit a roadblock in Preston, where state wildlife officials and federal sharpshooters have been denied access to public land where diseased deer are believed to be wintering.
The denials have come from Fillmore County and the State Veterans Cemetery in Preston. Woodland tracts along the Root River controlled by the institutions are home to deer in the state’s most heavily infected CWD hot spot.
“We’re after those two parcels,’’ said Michelle Carstensen, wildlife health group leader for the DNR. “We’re behind the eight ball if we can’t get at that group of deer.’’
A cemetery spokeswoman and the county board’s chairman both said the woods are off limits to federal wildlife sharpshooters hired by the DNR because “hunting’’ on the land is forbidden out of respect for veterans.
A recent aerial survey by wildlife biologists counted more than 100 whitetails in the section of land that includes the cemetery and the 86 acres of county land on the cemetery’s perimeter. Of the 42 CWD-positive deer harvested in southeastern Minnesota since 2016, half have been located within 1 mile of the cemetery.
Carstensen said the DNR strategy of culling deer to slow the spread of CWD is most effective when it targets disease hot spots. The campaign is supported by a special $4.75 million funding request from Gov. Tim Walz.
“We’re trying to remove infected deer, and there’s a lot of infection in that area for whatever reason,’’ Carstensen said.
The unwillingness to cooperate by public officials isn’t sitting well with some private landowners who have cooperated, Carstensen said. A number of private landowners are currently allowing sharpshooters to cull deer on their own hunting land to benefit the overall wild herd.
Duane Bakke, chairman of the Fillmore County commissioners, said the board voted Tuesday to block access to the sharpshooters. The board also voted to disallow the issue from becoming an agenda item at future meetings, Bakke said.
In 2017, the county board nixed public hunting in the woods around the cemetery at the cemetery’s request. Bakke said he doesn’t consider the CWD sharpshooting campaign to be “hunting,’’ but at Tuesday’s meeting the commissioners were adamant in not granting the DNR an exception, he said. The board went so far as to vote for no access to the DNR even to retrieve a dead deer.
Bakke said there’s a degree of anti-DNR bias on the county board.
Beth Barstow, spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, issued a statement that said hunting is forbidden on state cemetery properties because they are memorials to veterans. “This sacred ground is a place of honor, peace and tranquillity,’’ the statement said.
Barstow said it’s against state law to discharge a firearm on an official burial ground. She said that the agency explained its position to the DNR’s top executive and that the DNR “respectfully went another direction.”
Carstensen said deer removal has been allowed in the past at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. In Preston, she said, the DNR wants access only to the cemetery’s non-burial, wooded areas.