The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plans an unprecedented dragnet of staff this deer opener weekend in north-central Minnesota to catch signs of chronic wasting disease.
The effort follows the discovery of a CWD-positive deer at a deer farm in Merrifield last year.
The contagious disease involves harmful prions, or infectious agents, attaching themselves to a deer's central nervous system, causing lesions to form on the brain. The disease is terminal, with death occurring anywhere from several days to a year later.
To see if the disease has spread among the wild deer population in northern Minnesota, the DNR aims to get about 3,600 samples turned in from deer shot by hunters during the first two days of this firearms deer season. For the first time in state history, they've implemented preemptive mandatory testing in a region where no deer has yet been found CWD-positive in the wild.
Wildlife Health Supervisor Michelle Carstensen is heading up the CWD effort this year, but she pointed out the DNR's monitoring response to the Merrifield and other cases won't stop once hunters put away their rifles at season's end. Their plan calls for a further two years of targeted monitoring, she said.
"The extent of what we do, depends on what we find," she said.
About $600,000 would go into CWD monitoring across the state in 2017, $200,000 for each of the three geographic zones of concern, Carstensen said.
Assistant Wildlife Manager Bailey Petersen helped organize the sampling stations in the north-central region. She said the DNR went over a large swath of considerations when it was setting up the stations: how close they were to population centers, areas of high deer hunting activity and major highways. The goal was no hunter in the mandatory testing zones would have to travel more than 16 miles as the crow flies to get to a station, she said.
Just under 50 DNR staff members and a platoon of 100 students from area colleges and universities would staff the stations, Petersen said.
"I hope we're over prepared," she said.
The samples—thousands of deer lymph nodes—will be sent to a testing facility at the Colorado State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colo. According to the lab's website, each sample costs $22 to test. After a couple of weeks, DNR officials will hopefully know which ones, if any, are positive for CWD.
Bill Faber of Central Lakes College will work at one of the stations, along with six of his students. He said 12 of his natural resources students—and 300 statewide—applied to be at the stations, but only a portion got in.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Tuesday CWD was the single most important wildlife concern he and DNR staff had. Over Landwehr's tenure as commissioner since 2011, with about 1.5 million deer killed, 12 cases were positive, he said.
Nevertheless, the DNR was pulling out all the stops to make sure the disease did not gain a foothold in Minnesota, he said.
"CWD, should it become established beyond just these one or two instances, really poses a huge threat to our deer (hunting) tradition," Landwehr said.
When DNR met BAH
While the DNR monitors CWD in the wild deer population, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health keeps watch for it among domestic deer farms. The two agencies have clashed over CWD monitoring and response, generally along the lines of the BAH saying the DNR was being overzealous and the DNR saying the BAH was too lackadaisical.
Landwehr said the two government bodies shared the same goal of preventing the spread of CWD among both the wild and captive deer herds.
"Anytime there's two agencies working together, there's bound to be some friction," he said. "We're just going to work through those issues."
The Minnesota Legislative Auditor is examining the BAH's role in farmed cervid regulation with an audit that began last month and is expected to finish in March.
I got a deer, now what?
For those who've shot a deer in the north-central region's eight permit areas with mandatory chronic wasting disease testing, they're going to need to bring it in. Here are some tips from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on how to make the process easier:
• Those who've shot a trophy deer and want to have it mounted, contact a participating taxidermist authorized to take a CWD sample for the DNR.
• Field dress (gut) the deer as one normally would.
• Register the animal on same day it's shot—online, by phone or at any walk-in big game registration station.
• When loading the deer into a vehicle, place head toward tailgate or door so the neck/head is easily accessible for sampling. This will speed up the process.
• Hunters may also bring in just the head with 4 inches of neck attached.
• Take the deer to get tested for CWD at a sampling station 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, or Sunday, Nov. 5. Stations will only be open on these days. Visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/cwd/nc/index.html to see a list of nearby sampling stations.
• A CWD sample consists of cutting out two lymph nodes from the neck of the deer, just behind the jaw.
• DNR staff will collect the lymph node samples and some information from the hunter (a DNR number and location of where the deer was shot).
• Plan ahead and have a blue, deer license registration stub handy.
• Know where on a map the deer was shot within the deer permit area.
• For those who plan to European mount a deer, this testing will not ruin the mount. It will ruin the cape of the deer for those who plan to keep the cape.
• For those who plan to shoulder mount a deer or save the cape there are options. Cape the deer before bringing it in or at least skin the hide back up to the base of the jaw. Or take it to one of the participating taxidermists trained to take the sample. A list of participating taxidermists trained in sample collection is available at www.dnr.state.mn.us/cwd/nc/index.html.
• Hunters will not be notified of their test result unless it comes back positive. Testing takes about 10-14 business days and no news is good news.