With five days to go before opening day of the Minnesota firearms deer season, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is in court with criminal charges against a Fillmore County deer farmer who allegedly kept wild deer.

The case is an example of how the issue of chronic wasting disease (CWD) is lingering over the state in dramatic ways at a time when an estimated 500,000 hunters are poised to harvest more whitetails than they have in several years.

But the overall good news about increased deer abundance has been muted by three different CWD outbreaks that emerged within the past year. The first occurred in Fillmore County’s wild deer population, followed by CWD outbreaks detected on deer farms in Crow Wing and Meeker counties. Because of the outbreaks, the DNR will conduct more CWD surveillance this deer season than ever before.

Those tests and the criminal case in the southeastern CWD area reflect DNR concerns that infected captive deer might infect wild deer, especially when fences fail and tame deer mix with wild deer.

The four misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of wild deer against Greg A. Ballinger, 56, of Spring Valley, grew out of concerns raised by DNR game wardens that wild deer were being “brought and kept inside the fenceline” at Ballinger’s farm.

The investigation documented a large, still-unresolved escape of captive deer from the farm. Officers detailed major discrepancies in Ballinger’s deer records and reported many cases of untagged deer on Ballinger’s farm in violation of state law.

Lt. Tyler Quant, the DNR enforcement officer who is supervising the ongoing investigation, said last week in an interview that the findings are “egregious.”

“Just look at the facts,” Quant said. “If this individual can’t be shut down, I don’t know who can.”

Ballinger, who said he’s in the deer business to sell big bucks for private hunts, denied keeping wild deer and said he will fight the charges, each carrying a $640 penalty.

Ballinger said he is a pawn in a power struggle between the DNR and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health over who is to blame for the spread of CWD. The Board of Animal Health regulates deer farmers and its leader, Dr. Beth Thompson, bristled at a recent plea from DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr to stop Ballinger from deer farming. Other DNR officials have accused Thompson’s agency of being cozy with deer farmers.

“The DNR is just pushing their power,” Ballinger said. “And, no, I don’t have any CWD, either.”

New documents indicate that at one point during the DNR’s investigation of Ballinger’s deer farm, a state game warden was face-to-face with Ballinger when the deer farmer took a phone call from someone who wanted to tranquilize a wild buck and bring it into the farm. The caller said the buck had non-symmetrical antlers.

Documents in the case said the warden, James Fogerty, overheard the conversation from the loud volume on Ballinger’s phone. Fogerty wrote in his report that Ballinger “seemed agreeable” to the idea.

“I’ve never done that,” Ballinger said when asked about capturing wild deer for profit.

Captive deer in Minnesota are required to be ear-tagged for identification. DNR investigators documented numerous sightings in June, July and August of untagged deer within Ballinger’s 7½-acre pen. On Aug. 26, they used a search warrant to pull records from Ballinger’s farm to see if any of the untagged deer could be proven as property of the farm.

Five days later, the officers returned with a new search warrant to euthanize four previously untagged deer that they determined were wild. Post-mortem testing showed no CWD.

“I didn’t have the records up to date,” Ballinger said in an interview.

Investigators pointed to serious discrepancies in the records. For example, Ballinger told investigators an untagged button buck was born in 2016. But the buck was not on the farm’s 2016 inventory.

Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson said the county is now waiting for Ballinger to pay the fines or contest the case. Corson said the case has interest because deer hunting is a dominant activity.

“If you live in this county, you hunt,” Corson said.

Ballinger said the four deer that the DNR classified as “wild” belonged to his farm. Confusion arose because the deer were untagged when they escaped after the farm’s fence collapsed this summer, he said. The fence was down for three weeks, drawing a considerable response from the DNR to keep farmed deer from mingling with wild deer.

In the aftermath, Ballinger said, what the DNR observed in the way of untagged deer inside his enclosure were actually tame deer, untagged, that returned to his feeder. Ballinger said he is not going to pay a fine for his own deer.

Dr. Linda Glaser, a senior veterinarian at the Board of Animal Health, said her agency issued a notice of violation to Ballinger. He paid a $250 penalty and complied “with all our requests,” she said. Restrictions now prevent him from taking in new deer or moving captive deer off the premises.

Glaser said DNA testing is a way to know if the deer euthanized by DNR were escaped untagged animals or wild deer.

Thompson, the board’s director, said her agency, like the DNR, wants to stop the spread of CWD.

In the case of Ballinger, she said, “I think we did what I think we could do.”