Michelle Carstensen didn’t expect her friends to dub her “Dr. Death.” But they did. And these days she is proud of it.
The first and only supervisor of Minnesota’s wildlife health program, Carstensen serves on the front lines of battles to protect the state’s moose, deer, waterfowl and other wildlife species from diseases that kill them. It is a job that takes her to deep forests, sprawling wetlands, farm fields and more, often as the lead detective on what’s killing Minnesota’s wildlife.
“It’s a dream job,” said Carstensen, 45, of North Branch, who oversees a staff of seven. “When I joined the Department of Natural Resources 15 years ago the agency didn’t have a wildlife health program. Back then major disease issues were relatively uncommon. Today, addressing disease threats is a significant part of our work. A host of diseases — chronic wasting disease (CWD), West Nile virus, Asian highly pathogenic avian influenza, Newcastle disease, avian cholera, and most recently epizootic hemorrhagic disease — all have negative implications for the state’s wildlife. We are in a very different time from not so long ago.”
What follows are edited remarks from a recent conversation with the animal science specialist.
On the path to a profession
I am a product of the American dream. I am a first-generation American who grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Wisconsin to immigrant parents who insisted I learn to fish and go to college. I honored their wishes. I became an avid angler, high school valedictorian, and the first person from my small community to attend an Ivy League school. As a farm kid I always enjoyed being around domestic animals, but discovered my true passion for wild animals while earning my master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota. The moment I handled a fawn during a research study I knew I had found my calling.
On learning on the fly
I was hired in 2004 to head up the state’s CWD surveillance efforts. Back then, CWD didn’t exist in wild deer in Minnesota. In fact, it wouldn’t be detected until six years later. Yet in 2005 a cattle disease called bovine tuberculosis showed up in wild deer in northwestern Minnesota. I was academically prepared for the challenge of eliminating TB in wild deer but unprepared for navigating the waters of local and state politics, hunter relations, and even interagency interactions. I had to learn a lot on the fly. It was bumpy at times.
Thankfully, the disease appeared confined to a relatively small geographic area. That meant we could potentially eliminate it if we greatly reduced deer numbers in the immediate area. This, of course, was highly unpopular with many at the local level. However, on the statewide level, the state’s cattle industry strongly supported our position. They did so because the presence of a cattle disease in wild deer had serious long-term negative financial implications for cattle ranchers throughout the state. Because that was the case, the political will to make Minnesota a bovine TB-free state was so strong that the governor authorized the shooting of deer from helicopters. Federal sharpshooters were brought in, too, to bait and take deer from the ground. During the seven years I coordinated this work, I often lived out of a bunkhouse. In the end, we eliminated the disease, and in doing so became a national model for achieving what few thought possible. Yes, it took years for local deer numbers to bounce back, but they have.
On CWD vs. bovine tuberculosis
Today’s fight against CWD is different than yesterday’s bovine TB efforts because no powerhouse group is leading a charge to eliminate it. Yes, there are pockets of support but, in general, you see less concern and more complacency … there’s a nagging sense of inevitability that Minnesota will become just another state with CWD. You can hear it in the voices of hunters and others who are more concerned about what deer reduction efforts will mean to next year’s deer season than the long-term future of Minnesota deer.
Still, we are committed to doing our best. Chronic wasting disease was first detected in Minnesota wild deer in 2010 near Pine Island in southeast Minnesota. That was one deer in one place. CWD wasn’t detected again in a wild deer until 2016, and since then has been found in deer in Fillmore, Houston, Winona and Crow Wing counties.
In these areas our goal is to reduce deer numbers, restrict the movement of deer carcasses, and reduce human-caused concentrations of deer. These actions have the best chance of reducing the spread of this unwanted disease. That said, these approaches aren’t popular with many hunters, landowners and others. In fact, it’s a full-time job just trying to counter the sea of misinformation in social media and elsewhere. That’s a difference from the TB effort, too.
On answering moose deaths
One of the highlights of my career was helping discover why moose in northeast Minnesota were dying at unprecedented rates. I was part of a team that in 2013 began to investigate the causes of moose mortality by using radio collars that sent location signals to us when a moose stopped moving, either from death or severe sickness.
Our job was to be at the moose’s side within 24 hours so we could collect health information before it had been scavenged or was otherwise unusable. And that’s what we did. We were like firefighters. We were on call 24/7/365 for six years. Helicopters. Snowmobiles. ATVs. Whatever it took, that’s what we used. Moose rarely died in places easy to get to.
Ultimately, we learned that one-third of the moose died from wolf attacks and two-thirds died from health issues. Of the one-third that died from wolf attacks, 40 percent had health issues, which is likely why they were targeted. The health issues largely related to worms in brains, flukes in livers, or high numbers of ticks, or a combination of all three.
Arriving at the scene of a dead or dying moose was both fascinating and humbling. Fascinating because in winter you could see how a wolf attack played out: the broken tree branches, the circling in the snow, the blood trails going this way and that. It was also humbling because sometimes we had to dispatch a moose that was too sick to move. Moose are super-cool. The biggest and coolest animals I’ve ever worked with. I could not end a moose’s life without shedding a tear.
On the future of disease work
I see more work than less work. That’s because diseases continue to be spread by animals, insects and people at both local and global levels. Animal diseases that used to be half a world away are now in America. Diseases were once limited to one part of our state are now found elsewhere. The good news is that most people are genuinely concerned about wildlife. Moreover, they want to know that the wild food they harvest and eat is disease-free. So, it’s critical to sustain surveillance efforts so diseases can be detected early while there’s still a chance to make a difference.
On enjoying the outdoors
I might be a little crazy. I’ve actually said to myself, “What an awesome day!” while carving internal organs out of a dead animal while working in 30-below-zero temperatures in the middle of nowhere. But I love to solve mysteries. And that’s what this job is often about. When I am not working, I enjoy the outdoors by fishing, hunting and riding my motorcycle, a Triumph Bonneville America. I bought the big bike for my 40th birthday. The road is a special place, too.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.