A herd of captive whitetail deer fully infected by chronic wasting disease (CWD) roamed a pen that was inadequately fenced but approved by an inspector from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the Star Tribune has learned.
The case has rankled wildlife officials at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) because of the health risk the farm poses to wild deer in Winona County, one of the most densely populated whitetail regions in the state.
Deer hunters there almost surely will experience fallout from the case this fall if the DNR follows its routine of ordering CWD surveillance of the local herd. Lymph nodes from harvested deer are removed and tested for CWD. In other areas of the state, the checks have been mandatory.
“We have grave concerns about wild deer being infected by these facilities,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research supervisor at the DNR. “I think hunters should be pretty afraid of this one.”
Cornicelli said the farmer’s herd of seven whitetails was “100 percent infected and the Board of Animal Health says the fence wasn’t in compliance. That’s worrisome.”
The rural Winona farm owned by Bruce Hoseck was depopulated of deer Feb. 21, but the 12-acre facility still is considered a disease hazard to healthy wild deer because they are capable of breaching a fence that remains out of compliance. Hoseck said his fence has sagged over the years and many parts are lower than 7 feet in height. The state minimum height is 8 feet. He said it’s been that way for years and a small section of the fence was damaged last year and dipped to as low as 5 feet. The spot still is not fully repaired, he said.
But agency records show that Hoseck’s fence passed inspection in each of the past three years, including a check completed by the Board of Animal Health on Oct. 25.
“Yeah, that would be the case,” said Michael Crusan, a spokesman for the Board of Animal Health.
Hoseck told the Star Tribune that the state first told him his fence was out of compliance a month after the most recent inspection. That’s when CWD was first detected on his farm.
“The Board of Animal Health has been really nice. Good people to work with,” Hoseck said. “If the guy came out and looked at [the farm], he would leave a report card here. I always got very good grades.”
Inspection reports obtained by the Star Tribune from 2015, 2016 and 2017 all say the fence passed inspection in those years.
The discovery of CWD on Hoseck’s farm southeast of the city of Winona comes at a time of friction between the Board of Animal Health and the DNR. DNR officials complained publicly last year about a so-called “cozy relationship’’ between the Board of Animal Health and the deer and elk farmers the agency regulates.
In April, after some legislators and two deer groups also complained about alleged lax enforcement, the office of Minnesota Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles announced it would take a look. A report from auditor’s office is expected to be released next month.
Meanwhile, the DNR’s enforcement division is investigating the Hoseck case.
‘‘There is an active investigation into violations on that cervid farm,” Lt. Col. Greg Salo said Monday.
He confirmed that fencing has been an area of interest. Hoseck also is a state-licensed taxidermist and the DNR has enforcement authority over that industry.
Dr. Linda Glaser, Board of Animal Health assistant director and manager of the state’s farmed deer program, confirmed that the agency is working with the farmer to bring the fence into height compliance.
“There are some areas of the fence that don’t meet the requirements,” she said.
Minnesota deer farmers are supposed to report all escapes of captive deer and intrusions by wild deer. Glaser said the agency’s records over the past 10 years indicate no such incidents.
CWD, an always-fatal neurological disease in deer, elk and moose, is contagious via an infectious, misshapen protein called a prion. Infected animals shed the prions in saliva and other excretions and the prions can persist for years in soil and on other surfaces.
Under a recent agreement Hoseck made with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), he is obligated to sanitize his depopulated enclosure by burning and burying the ash remains of deer feeders, hay and other food remnants. The cleanup plan also calls for him to disinfect the exteriors of old cars parked on the property, Hoseck said. He’ll repair the fence and clean up his land when weather permits, he said.
CWD was first detected in Hoseck’s penned deer herd in November during mandated testing of a deceased 3-year-old buck. In December, a second deer carcass at the farm tested positive for the disease and Hoseck agreed to destroy his herd in exchange for money from a USDA animal indemnity program. He declined to say how much money he received.
In a news release late Friday, the Board of Animal Health announced that all seven of the euthanized deer tested positive for CWD.
Hoseck said he agreed with the USDA to keep his deer pen idle for at least five years. He is 69 years old and said he doesn’t plan to raise another herd. Deer farming is something he started as a hobby about 30 years ago, he said.
Only once in all that time — including years during the 1990s when the DNR regulated Minnesota deer farms — did any inspector ever question the integrity of his deer pen, Hoseck said. That happened about four years ago when “a couple of brace posts” in the fence rotted. A Board of Animal Health inspector told him to replace the posts and tighten the fence and he complied, he said.
Glaser said she is puzzled over how CWD infected Hoseck’s deer herd. The CWD outbreak also has ramifications for the city of Winona.
Chris Kramer, a crew chief who has responsibility for Winona’s Prairie Island deer park, said the city traded one of its bucks to Hoseck in April 2016. In return, the park received three female deer, including a white deer with dark eyes that became a popular attraction. The trade was made to diversify genetics in the city’s herd, Kramer said.
But all three female deer from Hoseck were euthanized in the past several weeks for CWD testing. The results were negative, but the city is now poised to discuss whether the deer park should be discontinued.
“It’s kind of a scary proposition for everyone and particularly when you are a city,” Kramer said.