American taxpayers gave a total of more than $510,000 to deer farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to wipe out captive herds infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) in 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to records released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The expense increased each year, growing to $270,956 last year. The Star Tribune obtained the payment data under the Freedom of Information Act, but the USDA declined to detail the cases or identify who received the money.

According to the data, Minnesota deer farmers received $93,616 in 2017, $20,195 in 2018 and $128,926 last year — the largest sum for either state in the three-year period. Deer farms in Wisconsin collected a total of $270,115 under the federal indemnity program for captive deer and elk over the same three years, records show. (There were no buyouts in Wisconsin in 2017.)

Former deer farmer Bruce Hoseck of Winona, Minn., declined to say how much money he received from the USDA in exchange for depopulating his herd in 2018. CWD was discovered inside his enclosure during mandated testing of a deceased 3-year-old buck in November 2017. In December of that year, a second deer carcass at the farm tested positive for the disease.

Hoseck said he joined the USDA’s livestock indemnification program in 2018 at the urging of state officials and because he was nearing retirement. By accepting money from the agency, he agreed to have his small herd of white-tailed deer killed and tested for CWD. All seven deer remaining in Hoseck’s herd tested positive for the disease and the state Department of Natural Resources blamed Hoseck’s farm for spreading CWD to wild deer outside his fence.

Hoseck said he was impressed with the USDA’s valuation process — assigning buyout values for each individual deer. Antler size and pedigree were two notable factors in the appraisals, he said.

“I was satisfied with what they offered,” Hoseck said. “There were no negotiations.”

John Zanmiller, a lobbyist and spokesman for Whitetail Blufflands Association, a deer hunting group in southeastern Minnesota, said the USDA herd buyout program for infected deer farms is “like a dose of nasty medicine.”

For management of CWD, he said, it’s critical to kill captive deer herds infected with the disease. But some hunters wonder why the expense falls to taxpayers, Zanmiller said.

“Where’s the deer farmer’s contribution?” Zanmiller asked. “The buyouts promote the idea of private wealth at public expense.”

He also questioned why the program lacks transparency. There can’t be public scrutiny of the payments as long as case details aren’t disclosed, he said.

Limited disclosure

The USDA cited privacy laws and legal constraints involving trade secrets in denying the release of additional information. In late July, the Star Tribune submitted a written request to the USDA for details on last year’s buyout of a large Crow Wing County deer herd first found to be infected with CWD in 2016. The newspaper also asked for a summary of how many deer farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin participated in the program dating back to 2000 and how much money was paid out to them.

The department’s reply, received last month, provided total disbursements in each state for 2017, 2018 and 2019. The reply also said $27,610 went to Wisconsin in 2015.

In a letter, the agency said it would disclose only a single page from 114 pages of records that it determined were responsive to the newspaper’s request. “We determined that it was appropriate to fully withhold 113 pages,” the USDA said.

Donna Karlsons, a USDA public affairs specialist, previously said that a limited budget is available for animal payments under the deer and elk herd buyout program for CWD control. The maximum payment is $3,000 per animal and the fiscal 2019 budget allocated $1.3 million for CWD indemnity, she said. Buyout requests are prioritized based on risk factors that vary by case, Karlsons said.

In the Crow Wing County case at Trophy Woods Ranch, USDA sharpshooters last April killed 89 deer, including seven that tested positive for CWD. Another 13 animals were found on the property, decomposed and unable to be tested. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health said that only one other deer from a separate Minnesota herd was euthanized in 2019. If the Crow Wing farm only got paid for the live deer that were killed and tested, the average payment per deer in Minnesota in 2019 would have been $1,432.

The payment data from the USDA included an entry of $4,472 paid to the city of Winona in 2018. No details were provided by the USDA, but Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said the payment was for three captive deer in the city’s now-defunct Prairie Island deer park. The animals were euthanized under the indemnity program because state officials wanted them tested for CWD.

The three city-owned deer had possibly been exposed to CWD because they once lived on Hoseck’s farm. They did not test positive. Winona acquired the three female deer by trading a city-owned buck to Hoseck in April 2016. The trade was made to diversify genetics in the city’s herd. The USDA payment to Winona averaged $1,490 per deer.

The city closed its deer park last year, Sarvi said.

The taxpayer-funded herd buyouts to control CWD require participating deer farmers to disinfect equipment within their enclosures, burn all organic matter in the pens, and maintain fencing to keep wild deer from entering. For five years, the sites are posted as biohazard sites because they are believed to contain the infectious prions that CWD-infected animals shed through their saliva, feces, urine and antler velvet.

In Minnesota, 300 deer and elk farms are regulated by the Board of Animal Health. This year, the agency has twice used the USDA’s CWD-related indemnity program to kill and test eight whitetails on a Pine County deer farm and four deer on a Wadena County farm, the agency said.