A state report alleges the Minnesota Board of Animal Health fails to enforce laws relating to deer and elk farms, keeps poor records, is lax at penalizing violators and has allowed a third of deer and elk producers to skip testing in combating the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD).
Those failures and other shortcomings detailed in a report Friday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor help explain why the agency has been accused by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over the past two years of being too cozy with deer and elk farmers.
CWD threatens the state's invaluable herd of wild deer, and the DNR believes inadequate oversight of the state's 400 deer and elk farms has increased the disease risk.
Since 2002, CWD has been detected eight times in Minnesota's captive deer or elk herds. As a whole, the report said, deer and elk farms in the state have experienced animal escapes, inaccurate inventories, inadequate official identification of animals and fencing lapses.
Sarah Delacueva, the report's chief author, said the agency's inadequate data "does not allow for easy analysis of violations or compliance issues."
But the report also noted that oversight improved last year when Dr. Linda Glaser replaced a long-term incumbent in charge of the deer and elk program.
State veterinarian Beth Thompson, executive director of the Board of Animal Health (BAH), broadly concurred with findings and recommendations in the report. She told a panel of state legislators Friday that field staff is being retrained and modifications are in the works to clean up records needed for effective CWD response when the disease appears in captive deer and elk.
"Valuable issues were brought to light by this report," Thompson said in a letter to Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles.
The report said Minnesota has one of the largest populations of farmed deer and elk, but half of U.S. states are more strict when it comes to importing the animals. And even though state law requires it, the Board of Animal Health doesn't adequately track "animal origin" on its herd registration forms, the report said.
"If BAH staff cannot find the origin of a particular animal that has been exposed to CWD, it will not know which other herds should also be investigated for possible CWD exposure," the report said.
State Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, raised the issue of "regulatory capture" where an agency is beholden to the industry it regulates. He hailed a recommendation in the report to expand BAH's five-member board of directors. The board has three producers and two veterinarians and the recommendation calls for the addition of at least one public member who isn't a vet and who isn't invested in livestock.
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said BAH could stand to add four or five new board members.
One of the report's most surprising findings was that the agency hasn't "systematically analyzed" whether deer and elk producers test deceased animals for CWD. Testing is mandatory because it's the only way to know whether animals are infected with the contagious disease.
A review of data from 2014 to 2017 found about one-third of Minnesota deer and elk producers failed to submit tissues for CWD testing, the report said. In 2015, 16 percent of producers failed to submit any of the required samples, the report said. Delacueva called it a "critical" shortcoming.
The report recommended that BAH and DNR agree on a way to share data. The two agencies — described in the report as having a strained relationship — said they've already made such an agreement.
The report also recommended that the Legislature convene a task force to study whether deer feeding regulations and rules covering imports of captive deer and elk are adequate.
Forty percent of states do not allow importation of any live deer or elk, the auditor's report noted.
Deer feeding, while popular in Minnesota, concentrates wild animals close to one another, increasing the chance of disease transmission among them.