Whitetail hunters in southeastern Minnesota differ in their opinions about the state’s second-ever outbreak of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer, but they uniformly dread the impending deer kill-off that’s being planned for January to stop the affliction from spreading.
“This whole deal makes me sick,’’ said Troy Copeman of Fountain, Minn., who said he lives for deer hunting. “We’ll have to open our doors to all hunters to shoot a bunch more of our deer.’’
“This is kind of a real hard hit,’’ said Marty Stubstad, a bowhunting die-hard and founder of Archery Headquarters in Rochester. “The hunting here has gotten so good and the enthusiasm has been so high.’’
For the past decade, no area of the state has worked harder to improve the vitality and age structure of its deer herd than the blufflands region south and east of Red Wing. Now hunters in the area are bracing to hear details of a CWD response plan that could put a hole in deer populations around such hunting hotbeds as Lanesboro, Chatfield, Rushford, Fountain, Preston and Harmony.
Six years ago, blufflands area hunters won a campaign for state-sanctioned antler point restrictions to grow bigger bucks. It worked.
They also fought to eliminate spotlighting, or night “shining,’’ of deer, and many hunters from the area continue to push for a later firearms season to keep bucks from being ambushed during their most vulnerable period, the mating season.
Interviews last week with landowners, hunters and a local taxidermist showed sharp differences in opinion over who is to blame for the latest CWD outbreak, how serious it is and whether the DNR can be trusted to stop it. Their conflicting theories and a strong measure of local hostility against deer and elk farms — which are numerous in the area and suspected of fostering CWD — are starting to play out as the DNR prepares to conduct its first public meeting with the area’s stakeholders. A time and place for the gathering could be announced this week.
“The DNR, once again, will take an undue beating,’’ said Scot Bjornson, a blufflands deer hunter who supported the emergency harvest of about 4,000 deer from within a 10-mile radius around Pine Island, Minn., in 2011. The special Pine Island hunt was in response to the first CWD-positive wild deer ever detected by the DNR. Since then, the area’s deer population has been rebounding and there has been no return of CWD.
Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s top big game researcher and disease strategist, said a similar approach can be expected around Lanesboro in response to the finding late last month of two CWD-positive bucks harvested west of that town. The agency was proactively testing for the always-fatal neurological disease in the southeast corner of Minnesota because CWD has been expanding in nearby counties of Wisconsin and Iowa.
Unlike Minnesota, those two states have given up hope of eliminating CWD and don’t hold large-scale herd reductions in areas where it spreads.
Bjornson likened Minnesota DNR wildlife managers to firefighters. He said hunters shouldn’t blame them for the temporary, collateral damage of lower deer populations when they stomp into an area to protect the long-term interest of whitetail deer hunting.
Bjornson said more blufflands deer hunters than not side with the DNR. But he said there are pockets of dissenters, including hunters seeing more big bucks after restrictions against shooting yearlings.
“They’re six years into it and saying, ‘I’m not so sure I want to wipe out the deer,’ ’’ Bjornson said.
Bjornson and Michael Sieve, a deer hunter and wildlife artist from Rushford, said the Lanesboro CWD case should help galvanize opposition to commercial deer and elk farms as transmitters of the disease. Southeastern Minnesota is home to a high number of the captive game farms, they said, including 10 operations within a 15-mile radius of Lanesboro.
Sieve said it’s often impossible to prove linkage between the captive cervidae industry and CWD in wild deer. But wild game managers who fight CWD attest to the threat of transmission when infected animals escape pens or touch noses through fencing with wild deer. One thrust of deer and elk farming is to grow bucks and bulls for private hunts in fenced-in areas around the country.
“It’s not a coincidence when CWD shows up [in wild deer] that it’s next to a game farm,’’ Bjornson said.
In Minnesota, the State Board of Animal Health has regulatory oversight over farmed deer and elk. Paul Anderson, a veterinarian with the board, said the state is confident that the Lanesboro outbreak wasn’t transmitted by the area’s captive deer.
Live animals can’t be reliably tested for CWD, so there won’t be a comprehensive check. But Anderson said none of the four game farms within a 10-mile radius of where the infected wild deer were shot has recorded a CWD finding. By regulation, any captive deer or elk that dies or is slaughtered gets tested for the disease, and Anderson said each of the four operations has at least a decade’s worth of tests — all negative.
He said none of the 10 cervidae farms within the 15-mile radius has reported an escape.
Terry Haindfield, a wildlife manager for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said Iowa officials will do sample testing starting Saturday of deer harvested in three counties that border southeastern Minnesota.
“We’ve had good correspondence with Minnesota,’’ he said.
A southeastern Minnesota taxidermist who asked for anonymity said lots of blufflands deer hunters believe the DNR is using CWD as an excuse to lower deer densities to placate the insurance industry, which pays for deer-vehicle collisions. He said many hunters also believe large-scale hunts aren’t a cure and that infected deer are naturally and effectively culled by coyotes, passing vehicles and hunters.
“They are acting like it’s Armageddon,’’ he said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s in favor of it.’’