Minnesota officials are scrambling on several fronts to fight against the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in northern deer herds where the always fatal neurological disease has traveled to Beltrami County by virtue of commercial deer farming.
Gov. Tim Walz wants the Legislature to strip deer farming oversight from the Board of Animal Health; the DNR is racing to build a fence around public land where the heavily infected deer farm dumped carcasses; University of Minnesota researchers want emergency funding to expand CWD testing at the dump site; state wildlife officials are applying for more federal funds to fight CWD; and the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association is suing the state to halt part of DNR's aggressive response to the outbreak.
CWD could have already spread from the dump site to an abundant population of wild deer previously considered untouched by CWD. The farmer, whose identity has not been revealed, accepted an undisclosed amount of federal money this spring to go out of business and have his herd killed and tested.
After a state investigation determined that nine other Minnesota deer farms in eight counties could be linked to the Beltrami farm outbreak, the DNR on June 1 imposed a two-month moratorium against the movement of any Minnesota farmed white-tailed deer for any reason to another location. According to the Board of Animal Health, 143 captive deer at the nine farms are considered exposed to CWD and should be killed and tested.
Investigators suspect the Beltrami farm became entangled with CWD by unknowingly acquiring a CWD-infected deer from a trophy buck deer farm in Winona County. The same Winona farm has been described as the vector to a separate CWD outbreak on a deer farm in Houston County.
But Gary Leistico, the St. Cloud attorney who represents deer farmers in their lawsuit before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, said the DNR's "stop movement" order is preventing some herd owners from meeting contractual obligations for the delivery of livestock. Unfairly, Leistico said, the movement ban includes farms certified as "CWD-free."
He said deer farmers don't have a lack of concern for CWD spreading to whitetails in the wild, but that the DNR overreached state law by stepping in.
According to the DNR, the movement ban was necessary to contain the current spread of CWD for the sake of wildlife. The DNR said it was also buying time to evaluate potential solutions. CWD — already established at very low prevalence rates in southeastern Minnesota — poses the threat of "extensive and irreversible damage" to wild deer, the agency has said.
Michelle Carstensen, DNR's wildlife health group leader, said the Beltrami case provides new incentive for the state to dwell on prevention of CWD outbreaks rather than chasing them and trying to mitigate them.
Her division is once again applying to the U.S. Agriculture Department for nearly $250,000 in CWD grant money to offset the costs for CWD testing of the wild deer population in the Beltrami response area. Some of the money also would go toward a second year of wild deer testing around a CWD-positive deer farm in Douglas County.
For every new CWD battleground in Minnesota, taxpayers spend nearly $1 million or more to monitor and mitigate the spread.
In a letter sent this week to key committee leaders at the Legislature, Walz said lawmakers should transfer deer farm oversight to the DNR.
"It's clear that we need a new strategy to address the problem of CWD in farmed white-tailed deer," the governor wrote.
Three years ago, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor's Office issued a report that said the Board of Animal Health was cozy with deer farms and lax on regulations meant to prevent CWD transmission.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters' Association, based in Grand Rapids, has responded to the Beltrami outbreak with a call for tighter controls on deer farms. In a letter to legislators, the group called for the transfer of deer farm oversight to DNR, a moratorium against any new deer farms and other reforms. Many of the ideas have been introduced in the House, but not the Senate, where there has been resistance.
Also emerging from the Beltrami deer farm outbreak is a push by researchers at the U's College of Veterinary Medicine to expand the use of new technology to detect CWD-causing prions in the environment. The team headed by scientist Peter Larsen wants to deepen work at the site, applying this week for $108,000 in emergency funding from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. The LCCMR liked the request and sent it to Walz for his approval.
Meanwhile in the tiny town of Hines, Minn., where the defunct Beltrami deer farm dumped carcasses on tax-forfeited land controlled by the county, the DNR is working to secure a route across private land to build a fence that would keep wild deer away from the contagions.
Blane Klemek, assistant northwest region wildlife manager for the DNR, said the project will need attention for a minimum of 20 years. He said specifications call for a 10-foot-high, woven-wire fence that must span three stretches of wetland. The enclosed land and water will measure 12 acres.
Also in the works is a joint powers agreement between DNR, Beltrami County and the Board of Animal Health to lay out cost sharing and other responsibilities. Klemek said his division's highest priority is to stop the spread of CWD. He noted that the carcass dump site is in the midst of a popular deer hunting area with "lots of established deer camps."