An elk on a farm north of Rochester -- the largest elk farm in the state with about 1,000 head -- has been found to have chronic wasting disease.
It's the first time the fatal brain disease -- known as CWD -- has been found in Minnesota since 2006 and the first time it has been found in southeastern Minnesota.
The discovery, announced Monday by the state Board of Animal Health, is disturbing for both the state's elk industry, largest in the nation, and state wildlife officials, who fear the disease could spread to the state's wild deer.
"If you follow what has occurred in states like Wisconsin [where CWD has been found in wild deer], you can't help but be concerned,'' said Tim Bremicker, regional wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources.
The news is a nightmare for the operators of the farm near Oronoco in Olmsted County. Their entire herd may have to be destroyed.
"We have quarantined the farm; no animals will be coming or going,'' said Malissa Fritz of the Board of Animal Health. Officials have yet to determine the fate of the remaining elk, but the only reliable test for CWD involves killing animals and testing their brains. That's what happened in three previous cases in Minnesota where captive animals were found with CWD, but those farms were much smaller.
State officials said the operation, called Elk Country U.S.A., is run by brothers John and Karl Hoehne, who live there. But Karl Hoehne said the brothers sold the land along Hwy. 52 to Tower Investments, a California real estate firm that plans a multiuse development called Elk Run. He said he and his brother still operate the elk farm, but referred questions to a Tower Investment representative, who couldn't be reached for comment.
The latest case involves a 7-year-old female elk , which was slaughtered after Christmas. It tested positive for the disease on Friday.
"Right now we don't know how long it's been in the herd, or at what level it's been in the herd,'' said Paul Anderson of the state Board of Animal Health. He said no animals have been brought to the farm for about five years.
It is the sixth captive deer or elk in Minnesota found with CWD. Three elk at two farms in Aitkin and Stearns counties tested positive in 2002 and 2003, and two whitetail deer from a Lac qui Parle County farm tested positive in 2006.
Endangering state's deer
Since chronic wasting disease was found in the state, DNR officials have been concerned it could spread to the state's wild deer, which number about 1 million. The DNR has tested more than 30,000 wild deer since 2001, and none tested positive. But though state-licensed big game farms must be fenced, animals have escaped. The disease can spread through nose-to-nose contact.
In response to the discovery, the DNR plans to conduct an aerial survey of wild deer in the area to assess deer densities. But officials said they probably will wait until next fall to test deer killed by hunters in that area for CWD. Last fall, the DNR tested about 500 hunter-killed deer along the Wisconsin border, including Olmsted County, and another 1,500 deer in northwestern Minnesota as part of an ongoing disease survey. None tested positive.
Still, the latest case is concerning for deer managers and hunters.
Tough situation for farm
"It was something I was hoping we'd never see,'' said Jim Vagts, a founding member of Bluffland Whitetails, a hunting group in southeastern Minnesota. "We are against captive game farms for the simple reason that they can bring in diseases that pose a huge threat to our wild game population.''
Said Mike DonCarlos, the DNR's research and policy manager: "It's not good news, but it's happened three times before. And if the past is any guide, every time we've checked for spillover in the wild deer, it's not happened. So that's encouraging.''
Brenda Hartkopf, executive secretary of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, said all animals slaughtered on game farms must be tested for CWD, and the latest case shows the system is working.
"We've been doing mandatory testing since 2004, and it has been very successful,'' she said. "We feel confident that this is an isolated case.''
Producers have tested 2,500 to 3,000 slaughtered animals yearly since then, and this is the first positive since 2006.
She said the Olmsted County farm faces a tough situation. "It's devastating for them and devastating for their herd,'' she said.
There are about 20,000 deer, elk, caribou, moose, reindeer and similar animals in the state on about 700 farms. Of those, about 9,000 are elk.