At the Capitol, Gov. Tim Walz and legislators again this session seem willing to keep Minnesota deer and elk farmers in business, while hoping simultaneously to quell the growing disquiet among hunters over the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state's approximately 1 million wild whitetails.
Inexorably, CWD in recent years has threatened wild deer from southeast Minnesota northwest to the Bemidji area, with CWD outbreaks often occurring close to ''captive cervid'' operations, as deer and elk farms are known.
To keep the disease from spreading further in areas where outbreaks have been detected, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has culled wild deer herds by issuing extra hunting permits. Though unpopular with many hunters, the action is considered necessary to reduce the number of animals the disease can infect.
At stake is a Minnesota tradition that dates to before statehood and a related $500 million deer-hunting economy.
Mike Koshmrl has seen firsthand the devastation CWD can wreak on wild deer.
Koshmrl grew up in Eden Prairie and graduated from St. John's University before studying environmental journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Now a resident of Jackson, Wyo., he has reported for 12 years from Colorado and Wyoming, and currently writes for WyoFile.com.
Koshmrl's recent story about a Wyoming mule deer herd that is more than 60% CWD infected points, perhaps, to an ominous future for Minnesota unless the always-fatal deer brain disease is controlled here.
Koshmrl has a stake in Minnesota's CWD fight. He returns to his home state each fall to hunt whitetails with family and friends in Itasca County.
In the interview below, Koshmrl discusses the threat CWD can pose to wild deer, and to hunters and hunting, when left unchecked.
Q: How long has CWD affected deer and elk in Wyoming?
A: In some ways, Wyoming is ground zero for CWD infection in wild deer and elk. CWD was discovered near the southern Wyoming boundary and has been in the state's wild deer and elk for 40-plus years. It has spread steadily and now can be found in every hunting unit of the state, or nearly so.
Q: When CWD was discovered in Wyoming, did wildlife officials attempt to stop its spread?
A: No. Wyoming's history, generally, has been to monitor CWD and see what happens. Then, about five years ago, the state's Game and Fish Commission instructed wildlife managers to research it more aggressively to see what controls could be applied. So Wyoming is now attempting to manage CWD.
Q: Your story about Wyoming's "Project Herd'' of mule deer reported a virtually unbelievable CWD infection rate of more than 60%, with some hunting outfitters reporting all of their deer testing positive.
A: CWD has probably been in that herd, which generally is in the Wind River basin, for 10 to 20 years. But it was only in the past few years that wildlife officials began intensively testing deer from it. From these tests they were able to determine with statistical certainty that CWD is ravaging the herd. This might be the highest CWD infection rate of deer in the world.
Q: You report that an outfitter in that area is having trouble finding mature bucks for clients because they're dying of CWD before they reach 5 years old or so.
A: Mule deer bucks typically are considered trophies prized by non-resident hunters. The outfitter I talked to said he has dropped from 100 hunters to about 20. Doe and fawn permits are available in the area, but those would be bought only by locals who are meat hunting. The advice is not to eat CWD infected deer, but a lot of Wyoming residents do.
Q: Are there ideas about how CWD originated in Wyoming? Neighboring Colorado, like Minnesota, allows deer and elk farms. But Wyoming doesn't.
A: No one knows. It is known that mule deer and elk migrate fairly long distances and the disease spreads from herd to herd that way. Wildlife officials here say that CWD seems to affect every herd differently. Whether that's due to soil types or other factors is unknown.
Q: Do Wyoming game officials make it easy for hunters to test deer or elk they kill?
A: They put drop boxes out at quite a few locations where hunters can leave heads of animals they kill for testing. But a lot of hunting here is in the back country and hunters don't pack out every head of every animal they shoot. Still, pulling a lymph node for testing is easy. More than 90% of meat I eat is wild, so I test every animal I kill. Sometimes I'll pull a lymph node and just put it in my pocket. You know what they say about prions — about how tough they are? I ran a lymph node through a washing machine once and still had it tested.
Q: Based on your Wyoming experience, do you have advice for CWD management in your home state?
A: Whatever management techniques that wildlife officials recommend to keep CWD at trace levels or below should be put in practice. Sitting back and doing nothing isn't advisable. As CWD spreads, it will turn hunters off to hunting while also reducing hunting opportunities.