EMILY, MINN. – Tracy Jones rolled his eyes at the thought of two more weeks of deer hunting.
It was Monday at his custom meat shop on Highway 6 and his parking lot was overflowing with pickup trucks and trailers loaded with more carcasses. He had a crew of four men working outside, just to handle the intake.
“We’re busy, but it’s working out well,” he said. “We’ve ordered six semi-trailers for freezer storage.”
The boom in business for game processors throughout Crow Wing County is the result of a greatly expanded deer hunt this year designed to stop chronic wasting disease (CWD) from getting established in prime, north-central Minnesota whitetail country.
Inside the newly created CWD Management Zone 604, there’s no limit to the number of antlerless deer that hunters can harvest this year. The normal nine-day season has been extended to 16 days, including an extra weekend.
“There’s so much talk about deer hunting this year. More people are out,” Jones said.
In past seasons, Emily Meats has processed 400 to 600 orders. This year, Jones guesses that his shop could process as many as 1,300 deer. The volume of orders would flow higher yet if state wildlife officials add a late-season hunt — a definite possibility.
The liberalized harvest, first implemented in southeastern Minnesota, is designed to remove diseased deer from the landscape and thin an area’s deer population to reduce deer-to-deer transmission of CWD, a fatal deer, elk and moose disease that has been spreading in North America since the late 1960s. Until this year, when the disease was detected in a free-ranging doe found dead near an infected deer farm south of Breezy Point, Minnesota’s only CWD battleground was southeast of Rochester.
As in parts of Fillmore, Winona and Houston counties, CWD checks are now mandatory for all deer harvested in Zone 604.
The Department of Natural Resources is staffing six stations in the 816-square-mile area to remove lymph nodes for testing and to talk with hunters about prevention efforts. A special tag is attached to each deer and no carcass can leave the zone until test results are in.
The rules essentially give hunters three options: Quarter your deer and dispose of the tagged carcass in a DNR-supplied dumpster; hang your tagged deer somewhere in the zone until the test results are in; or take your deer to a designated meat processor inside the zone.
Zone 604 is comprised of two whole deer permit areas from 2018, coupled with parts of two other deer permit areas. The new zone stretches from Pine River in the northwest to Emily in the northeast to below Aitkin in the southeast and Brainerd in the southwest.
DNR Wildlife Health Program Supervisor Michelle Carstensen said compliance with the new rules in Zone 604 has been good despite the stark change from a year ago. Carstensen said the DNR collected tissue samples from 1,700 deer in Zone 604 on opening weekend alone. As of Friday, including deer taken by archery hunters in the zone, 2,469 samples had been submitted for CWD testing. None of the first 782 samples tested positive.
Brian Beck of Princeton, one of the deer hunters who stopped Monday at the DNR check station in Crosby, said there’s no question the deer population is getting pummeled this year inside Zone 604. He’s been hunting in the area for the past 30 years and was surprised when the disease was detected so far north.
State officials have said the disease leaked out of Trophy Woods Ranch in Merrifield, a private hunting preserve and trophy buck breeding facility. The contaminated herd was purchased and killed six months ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In its short history, the farm housed 16 CWD-positive deer.
“I really have a problem with these deer farms,” Beck said.
He had no quarrel, however, with DNR’s response to the disease and he is holding out hope that all CWD tests are returned as “not detected.”
Carstensen said plenty of hunters in Zone 604 spoke out against deer farms while getting their animals tagged and tested for CWD on opening weekend. Nonetheless, they were cooperative, she said.
“I was expecting a lot of grumpiness,” said Curt Vacek, a DNR wildlife manager from southwestern Minnesota who was assigned to the CWD check station in Crosby.
He said most hunters were inquisitive and polite.
“Most folks get it that this drastically changes things,” said Andy Tri, a DNR biologist from Grand Rapids who worked Monday at the Crosby station.