State wildlife officials are scrambling to protect northern Minnesota's wild deer population from a defunct Beltrami County deer farm that became infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) and dumped at least 10 deer carcasses on nearby public land.

A fast-moving forensic investigation by the Department of Natural Resources and a team of CWD researchers from the University of Minnesota recently confirmed that at least one of the discarded animals carried the disease. The discovery suggests that contagious, disease-causing prions exist in the soil and on other surfaces at the illegal dump site, creating a threat to wild deer.

Peter Larsen, co-director of the U's Center for Prion Research and Outreach (MNPRO), said he's applying for emergency funding for a risk assessment that would study the prevalence of prions on the site and determine the boundaries of contamination. He said his team surmised that dead deer from the farm northeast of Bemidji were dumped over a period of years in a "central location" inside a county-managed woodland. Scavengers then dragged the remains around, scattering tissue and bones across 8 to 10 acres or more, he said.

"I would say it's a crisis for anyone who appreciates wild deer and the heritage of deer hunting," Larsen said. "We're at war against CWD and now the battle line has moved to northern Minnesota."

The DNR announced in mid-April that CWD — an always fatal neurological disease affecting deer and elk — was discovered inside a private deer herd between Blackduck and Tenstrike — the farthest north in Minnesota the disease had ever been discovered. The state Board of Animal Health, which regulates deer farms, said the diseased animal was acquired from a Winona County whitetail facility strongly suspected of spreading the disease to at least one other Minnesota farm. The agency also said the Beltrami County operator had a record-keeping violation, but there was no mention of carcass dumping.

Michelle Carstensen, the DNR's top wildlife scientist, said the illegal dumping came to light in recent weeks during a meeting that state and federal officials held with the herd owner. The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid the farmer to go out of business, wiping out his CWD-exposed herd of 54 deer.

Under normal DNR protocols, the agency was ready to launch a three-year, CWD surveillance program within a 15-mile radius of the infected farm. In the process, the DNR tests deer harvested by hunters during the fall season. It's also normal for an infected farm to be treated as a biohazard area.

But the farm's dumping of at least one diseased deer outside its enclosure on public forest land greatly complicates the DNR's response, Carstensen said. "Now we've got a big problem outside the [farm] fence," she said. "How do we best contain risk in a forested landscape?"

She said the DNR has been in talks with Beltrami County, the USDA, the Board of Animal Health, MNPRO and three Chippewa bands that have hunting rights in the area. Much of the focus has been on building a fence, but questions abound regarding boundaries, materials, payment, maintenance, duration of the enclosure, soil management and other factors.

"The urgency is to contain it, but there's some tails to this," Carstensen said.

Dr. Linda Glaser, assistant director of the Board of Animal Health, said the Beltrami County herd owner was not compliant with carcass disposal rules meant to avoid scavenging and spreading of potentially diseased animal remains. She said the agency is waiting for test results from the "depopulation" of the herd to see how many deer on the farm were carrying CWD. The herd owner had a history of not reporting mortalities "in a timely manner," she said.

John Zanmiller, communications chief for Bluffland Whitetails, a deer hunting association in St. Charles, Minn., said the Beltrami County case is the worst example of deer farm stewardship he's ever seen. "People behind this need to be held accountable," he said.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213