The St. Louis County Board of Commissioners, northern Chippewa bands and a coalition of hunters and conservationists have all come out against deer farming in hopes of stopping chronic wasting disease (CWD) from spreading between captive deer and the state's wild deer herd.

At a recent meeting of the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, the groups voiced desire to stop permitting new deer farms and start dismantling the industry by having taxpayers fund a sweeping buyout program. One estimate put the price tag at $24 million.

St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle said in an interview this week that the county attorney's office is working on a public process to enact a freeze against any new deer farms in the county. The action was triggered by a unanimous vote of the county's seven commissioners, six of whom are deer hunters, he said.

Boyle said they were motivated by last year's finding of CWD on a deer farm in Beltrami County, the farthest north the disease has ever been detected in Minnesota. The case has alarmed state wildlife health officials because infected carcasses from the deer enclosure were dumped illegally on nearby public land. Taxpayers paid $190,000 for a security fence to cordon off the site, now polluted with CWD contagions that could persist on the land for more than a decade.

State officials have documented how CWD-infected captive deer have been moved long distances in the commercial trade of deer bought and sold between farms, often for pay-to-hunt shooting experiences or for the breeding of monster bucks. Various outbreaks of CWD in wild deer have been linked to deer farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Minnesota already has spent $14 million to combat the disease, an always-fatal neurological ailment that many believe could ruin the tradition of deer hunting, a $500 million-a-year activity that touches every county in the state.

Rep. Rick Hansen, who chairs the natural resources committee, said he'll hold a second hearing before November's firearm deer season to receive more testimony about CWD and deer farms. The state regulates the industry, now composed of 253 herds. Some herd owners have said captive deer are being infected by diseased wild deer, not vice versa.

At the initial hearing Sept. 14, a new coalition that included deer hunting associations, the National Wildlife Federation and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa presented a resolution calling for an immediate moratorium on any new deer or elk farms and for the buyout of existing operations. The animals are classified as "cervids."

"The movement of captive cervids for the benefit of captive cervid operators has proven to present an unacceptable risk to our state's wild deer, moose, and elk and those who hunt, photograph, or otherwise value wild cervids on the landscape,'' the resolution states.

DNR reviews early teal season

It'll be weeks before the Department of Natural Resources fully analyzes the state's new, experimental early teal season, but the agency's waterfowl specialist said this week that participation was a little light and that hunters largely avoided shooting non-teal.

Harvest estimates will come from a DNR hunter survey in progress and the agency will make a full report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including turnout and compliance with regulations. The feds can't halt the three-year experiment, but they want to know how many non-teal were shot and what was the ratio of teal to non-teal brought down by shotguns during the five-day season that ran from Sept. 4-8.

"My impression is that people seemed to behave and not shoot at non-teal,'' said the DNR's Steve Cordts.

But Cordts said the brief season did include a couple of confirmed instances of hunters killing mallards, cormorants, grebes and other ducks. Additional violations — typical for any waterfowl season — included hunting without a duck stamp and shooting with lead shot. DNR's oversight of teal hunters included 30 observers who watched from "spy blinds,'' Cordts said.

According to anecdotal evidence, Cordts said, duck hunting areas were busy on the season's opening day, but hunters were scarce after Sunday. "Less hunter numbers than we thought,'' he said.

According to DNR licensing data, 38,718 hunters bought Minnesota duck stamps through Sept. 8, the last day of the new teal season. Some of those hunters were after only geese in the early goose season, and others bought stamps but didn't hunt, Cordts said. His estimate of active teal hunters during the five-day season is somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000.

With Minnesota's traditional duck season opening Saturday, the DNR expects to sell upward of 55,000 mandatory waterfowl stamps to hunters before the season ends Nov. 28.

Cordts said he heard of no conflicts between hunters and tribal authorities during the early teal season. The Leech Lake and White Earth bands declared closures of wild-rice waters shortly before the season opened. Some DNR officials believe the closures weren't legal, and Cordts said the agency will be working with the bands before next fall to address hunting-related safety concerns for ricers.

Minnesota pheasant count drops

Despite a moderate winter and favorable spring nesting conditions, state pheasant counts were down 25% this August compared to a year ago, according to DNR's annual roadside survey of the birds.

Hunters are hoping the count was artificially lowered by the drought. Survey takers make their observations early in the morning, and pheasants don't have to visit roadsides to dry off when there is no dew.

In addition, the DNR said detection of birds may have been impaired because of wildfire smoke, heavy cloud cover and slightly more wind.

This year's pheasant roadside survey — conducted on 148 routes of 25 miles in the pheasant range — counted 40.7 birds for every 100 miles traveled. That compared to 54.5 pheasants in 2020. Still, counts were on par with the 10-year average.

Year-over-year declines were greatest in the central (down 38%), west-central (33%) and southwest (30%) regions. In the south-central and east-central regions, counts remained similar to 2020. DNR said the only region to chart an increase was the southeast, but overall pheasant numbers there are the lowest.