Crow Wing County abandons deer carcass incineration as effort to prevent CWD spread
Land services staff sought direction from the board on whether to continue incineration operations, given just one CWD-positive deer was confirmed during the two hunting seasons since January 2019.
BRAINERD — Crow Wing County will no longer incinerate deer carcasses at the county landfill in an effort to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
First offered in 2019 in response to the detection of the disease in a wild deer in the county, the service costs the county about $40,000 annually, according to Ryan Simonson, environmental services supervisor. Simonson told commissioners Tuesday, June 28, he wanted direction from the board on whether to continue incineration operations, given just one CWD-positive deer was confirmed during the two hunting seasons since January 2019.
Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease affecting the cervid family — deer, elk, moose, reindeer and caribou — and causes degeneration in the brain of an infected animal, which culminates in their death. It is spread when one of these animals comes into contact with defective proteins, or prions, from an infected animal, such as saliva or other bodily fluids, which are known to survive in the soil for many years.
The carcasses from a dumpster are taken to another site at the landfill and incinerated at more than 2,000 degrees in a rectangular container filled more than half full with logs — pine at the bottom, and oak and birch on top — and a bed of coals until ash remains.
“We were accepting them from hunters for free at no charge to keep those deer carcasses off the landscape and get them into the landfill, because those prions that cause CWD can live on the landscape for decades. And so we’re trying to reduce the potential spread of CWD,” Simonson said. “ … The incineration has been working quite well. But in the summer, it can get hot, it can get smelly. And if the direction is to maintain the status quo, we’d like to get a cooler unit set up out there where the disposal site is.”
A cooler unit to store the carcasses until incineration would be a one-time cost of approximately $10,000, Simonson estimated.
Commissioner Paul Koering, who serves on the Solid Waste Committee with Chairman Doug Houge, said the committee engaged in extensive discussions on the matter but could not reach agreement on how to proceed.
“I’m actually in favor of not doing this anymore,” Koering said. “ … Nobody else is doing this. I think it was, Crow Wing County was, I guess, trying to be out of an abundance of caution, doing this. But I — for $40,000 a year — I just, I personally don’t want to keep doing it.”
Houge noted a third option beyond continuing it or not would be to limit the incineration to the hunting season only, rather than continuing to incinerate carcasses of deer killed on roads or in other ways throughout the remainder of the year.
“Everything in the summer would just go in the landfill, like I believe other landfills do, and capture the bulk of the deer carcasses during that time from our processors and hunters, and that would maybe reduce the cost,” Houge said.
Simonson said whether the incinerator is in use or not, the landfill would continue to accept deer carcasses to try to keep prions out of the environment.
“It’s just those unknown, what-if concerns about, what if these prions end up going into our landfill leachate?” Simonson said, referencing the runoff created when rainwater filters through waste. “And then what if the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) could start testing for that? There could be other potential unknowns that are probably low risk.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows said given the low positivity rate among the wild deer population in Crow Wing, he didn’t see a need to continue the program — unless the MPCA finds an issue.
“If the MPCA comes back and says, ‘Well, you guys aren’t doing your job,’ then that’s gonna be a problem for us,” Barrows said.
Simonson said the MPCA actually recommends putting deer right in the landfill, as long as it’s not known to be infected with CWD. The likelihood of this happening is slim, however, given the time it takes between when a hunter or processor sends in a sample to be tested and when results are returned.
Crow Wing appears to be the only county in the state offering carcass incineration. By contrast, some landfills in southeastern Minnesota do not accept deer carcasses at all, Simonson noted, because wastewater treatment plans balked at accepting leachate potentially laced with prions. Crow Wing County does not haul its leachate, instead spraying it on land application fields.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she seemed to be on a different page than other commissioners, citing a report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources extending the CWD management area in the county because of the positive test recorded in December 2021.
“It’s not gone from this area,” Franzen said. “ … We are going to have three more years of sampling and other disease management efforts, so I think we should be part of that effort.”
County Administrator Tim Houle asked commissioners whether this item should go on a future agenda.
“Would we want to put it on the next agenda, and then we could take — that will give others needed time to do some research?” Houge added to Houle’s suggestion.
“And if you have any questions that you would like additional information on, we can happily help with that,” Houle said. “What I would say is, I don’t think any of us have a crystal ball on what’s going to happen to CWD. And so it’s a risk management decision with imperfect information on what’s going to happen in the future.”
Koering said he thought the board should make a decision during the same meeting.
“I think it’s kind of a time-sensitive thing. I don’t think we want to keep dragging it on, because deer are still getting hit, and the highway department is probably hauling them in there,” Koering said. “And they’re sitting there rotting and stinking.”
Commissioner Bill Brekken said he felt like the incineration was an overreaction to an isolated problem and suggested the board place the issue on its next board agenda.
After Brekken weighed in, Koering made a motion to cease incineration operations, with Brekken providing the second. Commissioners voted 4-1 to pass Koering’s motion, with Franzen against.
“I don’t have enough information, I don’t think, to make the decision to cease,” Franzen said immediately following the vote.
History of CWD in Crow Wing
Seven deer originating from a deer farm in Merrifield tested positive for CWD in 2019, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health reported.
The board received CWD test results from the “depopulation” of the 112-acre Trophy Woods Ranch, which was first known to be infected by CWD in 2016 and registered numerous positive tests after that initial result. In April 2019, 102 deer were euthanized. All viable samples were sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratory for CWD testing. Seven tested positive for CWD, 82 deer showed no CWD and in 13 cases, the tests were either unsuccessful or the animal was too decomposed.
A January 2019 discovery of a CWD-positive wild deer carcass near Upper Mission Lake sparked countywide controversy, as the finding was the first case of a wild deer with CWD in Crow Wing County and discovered in close proximity to Trophy Woods Ranch.
The infected whitetail deer, which was confirmed to have CWD in February 2019, was never linked to the Merrifield ranch but did trigger community meetings and action from the USDA and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Between January 2019 and December 2021, no wild deer originating from Crow Wing County tested positive for CWD. But just before the special management zone for deer hunting — Permit Area 604 — was about to expire, a second deer came up with the disease. It was one of 1,234 deer tested that hunting season.
With nearly 15,000 wild deer in the area tested since 2017 and only two positives found, the DNR said it was confident CWD is not prevalent or widespread in Permit Area 604’s wild deer population. But continued testing as well as other efforts to help reduce risks of chronic wasting disease spread — such as more liberal harvest regulations, carcass movement restrictions and a ban on feeding and attractants — are the best ways to minimize the risk of chronic wasting disease becoming established in the area, the DNR stated.