Is the deer duel in St. Paul over? Chronic wasting disease unites DNR, Board of Animal Health
MINNEAPOLIS/WALKER—To prevent the decimation of Minnesota's deer, state regulators will need to get out of the rut they're in.
The two state agencies responsible for protecting the cervid (deer and elk) population from chronic wasting disease have locked antlers with each other recently: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials have accused their counterparts in the Board of Animal Health of being too cozy with the captive deer farmers they're supposed to be regulating.
But confirmed cases of CWD were found on farms in Crow Wing and Meeker counties last year. The largest outbreak in state history began last fall near a deer farm in Fillmore County. The clock is ticking.
The conflict stems from the fact the DNR's jurisdiction covers wild deer, while the BAH regulates farmed deer, working with cervid producers that raise the deer for hunters to shoot on enclosed preserves. In 2004, the Minnesota Legislature transferred regulatory power for farmed cervids to the BAH. Thirteen years later, the board and the DNR are still at odds over CWD prevention.
However, CWD does not care whether a deer was born in the wild or in captivity. The disease involves harmful prions, or infectious agents, attaching themselves to a deer's central nervous system, causing lesions to form on their brain. As a result, the deer become zombie-like—walking in circles, starving and sluggish.
The disease is terminal, with death occurring anywhere from several days to a year. The prions can spread via places where deer congregate—the DNR banned feeding wild deer in some counties for that reason. Therefore, the issue of contagion is especially pressing in places where deer are penned in together.
Complicating matters is the fact that to confirm a deer has CWD, observers need to examine its lymph nodes and brain stem. In other words, the deer needs to be dead before anyone can know for sure if it had CWD.
As of yet, the DNR has not found evidence of wild deer infected near the CWD-positive farms in Crow Wing and Meeker counties.
Last year, Minnesota instituted a carcass importation ban against hunters bringing dead deer into the state. This year, the opening of the firearms deer season will see mandatory testing in the hunting zones near where CWD-infected deer were found. That means hunters will be required to turn in testable carcass portions from the deer they bag. The area of the outbreak in Fillmore County forms the DNR's Deer Permit Area 603, which as a CWD disease zone also has mandatory testing in effect.
Night of the living deer
Lou Cornicelli, a DNR wildlife manager tasked with combating CWD, described the shortcomings of the BAH deer farm regulation effort when he spoke to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit in August.
"We are in the process of looking at some farmed cervid records—and they're bad," Cornicelli said. "I haven't seen all 450 (farms) but I've seen a few. Inventories rarely line up. You see cases where tags are reused from dead animals, so (for example) 'White Three' is a deer that may die four or five times. CWD test compliance: we hear all the time that all of these farms are 100 percent negative. Well, that's a test result, that's not test compliance. What percent of the dead animals are actually tested? It's low."
Other alleged BAH issues included allowing estimates of deer herds in lieu of actual counts and allowing frequent reported deer escapes, not to mention the ones that deer farmers don't report, Cornicelli said.
He appeared to have an issue with the very existence of deer farms. Calling the shooting of farmed deer a "hunting preserve" is like calling a slaughterhouse for cattle a "cow harvesting park," Cornicelli said.
"We need to stop calling these things 'hunting,'" Cornicelli said. "You're shooting a domestic animal behind a fence."
"Farmed cervids are associated with CWD in almost every case," he later added.
The Minnesota Legislative Auditor will examine farmed cervid regulation with an audit, Cornicelli said. The audit is due to begin in mid-October and finish in early March.
'I don't know people who would describe me as cozy'
A new sheriff in town may help solve the problems—real or imagined—at the Board of Animal Health.
The BAH's annual meeting Wednesday in Walker featured the leader who may break the tension between the board and the DNR. Dr. Linda Glaser spoke at length on the agency's response to CWD, including her plan to create by mid-October a list of minimum benchmarks BAH inspectors will use to grade deer farms. A nearly 13-year veteran with the BAH, Glaser took over management of the farmed cervidae arm from Dr. Paul Anderson in June.
As of 2017, there were 10,607 domestic cervidae in the state, she said, with 5,764 of those 320 cervidae being whitetail deer in farmed herds. Of the Minnesota cervidae, 1,376—13 percent—tested negative for CWD. Factoring for just whitetails, 973 of those were tested, or 16.9 percent of the total farmed whitetail population.
Asked in an interview afterward whether it was her goal to reform the farmed cervidae program, Glaser answered that she was in the process of examining the program as a new person in charge.
"People have different management styles," she said. "I tend to maybe write things down more, try to say 'OK, here's more guidelines for our field staff.' I'm doing things differently probably than Dr. Anderson is, but trying to learn the program at the same time, seeing what some of the issues are that I understand and where we can improve."
She acknowledged there had been friction between the BAH and the DNR over chronic wasting disease.
"The disease, I think, brings controversy," Glaser said. "It's a pretty concerning problem for both sides of the fence."
As to Cornicelli's assertion the BAH is too cozy with the deer farms?
"I don't know that many people who would describe me as cozy," Glaser said. "You can take that for what it's worth."
Another good sign for future cooperation between the two agencies was the presence of the DNR at the Board of Animal Health meeting in Walker. Even though she had earlier publicly criticized the BAH for lackadaisically regulating deer farms, DNR Wildlife Health Program Supervisor Dr. Michelle Carstensen struck an amiable tone Wednesday, describing the CWD surveillance operation the DNR would undertake for the start of the deer hunting season.