– Steep hills, hardwood forests, narrow valleys and scattered farm fields define the village outskirts of Money Creek, a corner of the Driftless Area in northeastern Houston County stitched together by dirt roads.

Craig Ihrke has hunted Minnesota whitetails there for 32 years, about 9 miles from the Wisconsin border at La Crescent. The venison has a regular place on his family’s dinner table, served with an extra sense of pride that it was brought to fork from a life of living close to the land.

Unbeknown to Ihrke’s family and friends this fall, chronic wasting disease (CWD) was lurking in their woods. Hunting on 320 acres, the clan shot a dozen deer — dutifully hanging them in the cold for butchering on the day after Thanksgiving. Along the way, they treated themselves to meals of fresh tenderloins.

“That’s how we do it every year,’’ Ihrke said.

Craig’s son Luke is a 16-year-old wrestler at Chatfield High School and a veteran of the group’s deer camp. He provided one of this year’s highlights at 8 a.m. Nov. 17 by shooting a nicely antlered, 10-point buck that strayed 40 yards in front of his ladder stand. When Craig heard Luke shoot, he walked over to help with the field dressing.

It wasn’t the biggest buck Luke had ever shot, but it provided an attractive bookend to a monster eight-pointer shot nearby on the same morning by Luke’s cousin, Jack Ihrke, 24, of Plainview.

Jack’s family hosted the meat-cutting party and Craig divvied up the packages, careful to evenly distribute the prime pieces by taking from various piles.

Luke was at wrestling practice on Dec. 3 when he missed an unexpected call from Erik Hildebrand, CWD project leader for the DNR. The biologist delivered an urgent heads-up.

“The adult male deer you shot on the 17th … came back as a suspect,’’ Hildebrand said in his message on Luke’s cellphone. “On that first test it was a very high suspect.’’

In a follow-up, Craig asked Hildebrand, “Would you eat it?” The answer was immediate: “Oh, no.’’ Federal disease experts recommend not eating meat from any CWD-infected animal.

Craig Ihrke spread the news among his hunting partners. Luke’s buck was the first CWD-positive deer detected in Houston County since CWD surveillance started there in 2002. The finding was announced swiftly by the DNR because the deer was located outside the core area of CWD in the southeast. Luke’s Money Creek buck was 31 miles east of the disease zone’s epicenter in Preston.

“It was a jaw dropper for everybody,’’ Craig Ihrke said.

Luke said he regretted the news, thinking: “Why does it have to be my deer?”

Touchy subject

Craig Ihrke was principal of Chatfield Elementary School for 11 years. He’s now the schools superintendent in Caledonia, but his family still lives in Chatfield. He’s a believer in science and he supports the DNR’s CWD response of thinning the southeastern Minnesota deer herd south of Interstate 90.

But Ihrke said misinformation about the DNR’s campaign is rampant in the Driftless Area, still the best place in the state to find a trophy buck. Ihrke said a lot of people have invested in hunting land in the area and some fear the herd will be overharvested from extra hunting. A special hunt this weekend and another after Christmas are part of the effort.

The agency has been pleading with private landowners and hunters to participate to reduce deer density, remove infected animals and lower the frequency of direct contact between the animals. The always-fatal neurological deer disease is spread from the saliva, urine, blood, feces, antler velvet or carcass remains of infected deer.

“There sure needs to be regulations to prevent the spread,’’ Ihrke said. “The DNR does some things I don’t agree with, but they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have.’’

Brown, down

The Ihrke hunting camp has long prioritized venison over antlers. They take bets every year on how quickly a certain group member will announce, “If it’s brown it’s down’’ — a reminder to shoot does as well as bucks.

Ihrke said big buck favoritism in Houston County has evolved to where some hunters seem ashamed to harvest an antlerless deer. It’s the only part of the state where yearling bucks are protected. Not until a buck has at least four antler points on one side can it be harvested. Ihrke believes the “dandy buck’’ ethos has led to an overpopulation of deer — a condition friendly to the spread of CWD.

“There’s too many deer down here,’’ he said. ‘’Where are people getting this pressure to shoot the mega-deer?’’

On the loose

DNR wildlife researchers will study DNA to determine whether Luke’s CWD-positive deer is related to infected deer harvested in the core CWD management zone in Fillmore County. Unlike female deer, bucks are known to stray from their natal range.

But in the DNR’s public announcement of the Ihrke deer, the agency also noted that the animal was harvested just 8.5 miles from a Winona County deer farm recently discovered to be wholly infected by CWD. A Star Tribune story in April reported the farmer’s failure to report an escaped, ear-tagged deer. A neighboring hunter shot it during a past deer season.

Ihrke said he was unaware of the disease-tainted farm until the DNR brought it up in connection with Luke’s case. He said intuition tells him the CWD in Luke’s deer stemmed from the captive deer facility.

“Had we known about the farm, we might have handled our butchering differently,’’ Ihrke said.

As it happened, the meat of 11 deer in the Ihrke camp got mixed together, and all of it will be disposed of by the DNR. The carcasses, initially discarded on private land, were recovered for disposal at the University of Minnesota’s tissue digester.

Whitetails forever

Ihrke said he’s worried about the spread of CWD but optimistic that Minnesota will control the outbreak better than wildlife management counterparts in Iowa and Wisconsin, where the disease is out of hand. In one area of Wisconsin, the mad cow-like disease now infects half of all bucks.

He said some hunters in southeastern Minnesota are resisting the DNR’s CWD plan to bolster their own, near-term hunting prospects.

“Let’s worry about the next 100 years,’’ Ihrke said. “I’m more worried about my kids and their kids.’’

Besides organizing the year-end hunts, the DNR will hire federal sharpshooters to supplement the harvest. In Houston County and elsewhere, the agency also will issue landowner shooting permits.

Ihrke said he’s likely to accept a shooting permit for a hunt in January or February. But he rejected the DNR’s offer to replace the 11 deer his group lost because of CWD.

“I’m not going to take a deer that someone else shoots,’’ Ihrke said. “It’s not the same.’’