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Fatal deer disease poses 'beast' of a problem for Minnesota lawmakers

Minnesota Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, tells reporters about legislation aimed at combatting the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers agree that scientists should get nearly $2 million to create a test that would detect a fatal disease in deer.

But some want to take a tougher tack in the months before scientists release the test, setting a moratorium on new deer farms that can open in Minnesota and offering buyouts for existing ones.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators along with hunting and wildlife advocates at a news conference on Monday, Feb. 11, said they would bring bills that would fund research at the University of Minnesota to create a device that could detect the neurological disease in deer.

There's no test at this point that can detect the disease in live deer. And there's no vaccine or antidote to get rid of it.

Chronic wasting disease has not yet been detected in humans. But scientists worry that the disease, which is like mad cow disease, could become a danger to humans if not kept in check.

"It's weird having buck fever and an impending sense of doom at the same time," John Zanmiller, a member of the Bluffland Whitetails Association said. "This is a multi-tentacle beast, we can't beat it by just smashing one of the tentacles."

More than 30 cases of the disease have been confirmed in Minnesota. In Wisconsin, by comparison, thousands of cases have been reported. The disease affects deer, moose, caribou and elk and it is always fatal.

"The idea is that we stop this before the entire state is a CWD zone," Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said. "We have to do some things immediately and treat it like the disease outbreak that it is."

Funding for additional CWD management and research to make a detection mechanism appear to have bipartisan support at the Capitol.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, last year asked scientists at the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab to push forward on a test to detect CWD. And in an email shared with the Forum News Service, the lab’s director said that was the “catalyst” to getting the ball rolling on meaningful research.

Daudt and Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, as well as Becker-Finn and a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed identical bills Monday appropriating $1.8 million for University of Minnesota scientists to move forward with the test.

“It just made sense to me that we could diffuse the situation or diffuse the animosity between the DNR and the cervid farmers if we could actually test these animals to find out if they have it or not," Daudt told the Forum News Service on Thursday, Feb. 7.

“Because there are tensions,” Davids interjected.

Davids said his legislative district is at the center of the CWD outbreak and both deer hunters and cervid farmers have concerns about efforts to combat the disease. He said he was concerned about Becker-Finn's proposal to set a moratorium on opening new deer farms and create a buyout program to eliminate the farms in Minnesota. The proposal would also restrict access to areas where deer were kept to prevent the spread of prions, the mutated proteins that cause CWD.

Scientists have found that infected waste or deer carcasses can then transmit those prions to soil and plants, where they can live for an undetermined amount of time.

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