Hunters across the northland held their collective breaths after a wild deer discovered Jan. 23 near Merrifield tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

The animal, an emaciated yearling doe, was the first wild animal in central Minnesota confirmed to die from the prion disease that’s plagued southern and southeastern Minnesota. CWD was present in Crow Wing County as far back as 2016, when captive deer were diagnosed at Trophy Woods Ranch, a 112-acre game preserve near Merrifield. A further seven animals tested positive in May 2019.

Subsequent informational meetings between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and local property owners were heated, with no shortage of vitriol directed at state agencies, out-of-state hunters and game farm owners.

The hottest points of contention revolved around the fact the infected wild animal discovered on Jan. 23 was less than a half-mile from Trophy Woods Ranch.

As a prion disease, CWD is notoriously difficult to prevent. Direct contact between healthy animals and the infected saliva, blood, feces, urine or other fluids can transmit the highly contagious and always fatal condition — even years after the original host animal succumbed to disease.

Contact between Trophy Woods deer and uninfected deer through a single enclosure fence was cited as the most likely point of transmission by DNR officials — a conclusion challenged by game farm owners, including Trophy Woods Ranch owner Kevin Schmidt.

"It's more important to me, outside (the game preserve enclosure) than it is inside, because there's so many more variables. Inside the fence, it can be controlled," said Schmidt, who noted he was harassed by angry lakes area residents on his own property. "Nobody cares about this more than I do. I've got 50 years invested in hunting. There's seven generations of hunters on our farm."

Schmidt alleged the DNR were lackadaisical in monitoring the area, particularly at a number of carcass drop sites used by some residents. In discussions with the Dispatch, DNR representatives said this was inaccurate and didn’t reflect extensive documentation of Crow Wing County over the last decade.

In response to the presence of CWD in central Minnesota, the DNR implemented a containment plan to eradicate and track CWD. Shortly after the discovery in the wild doe, 66 deer were killed by federal sharpshooters and hundreds more were tagged by archers and firearms hunters in the fall across management zone 604, which encompasses part of the Brainerd lakes area. None have tested positive for CWD. Crow Wing County also established a carcass dropoff site at the county landfill in hopes of preventing further spread of the disease.

However, Trophy Woods Ranch didn’t escape the controversy. The game preserve closed its doors in April when Schmidt accepted an indemnity plan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leading to the quarantine of the property and euthanization of all animals.

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at