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Inside the outdoors: Is it time to stop pussy-footing around captive deer farms?

During the week or so leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, state news carried the story of more disease-infected captive deer on a farm in Crow Wing County, near Brainerd. The animals had tested positive for fatal-to-deer chronic wasting disease, also known as CWD. These deer, now destroyed, were among about 100 estimated to be on this farm. Most are the whitetail variety. Some are mule deer, which are native to the West and Plains states, and are exotic here.

Captive deer have been raised for a variety of purposes across the U.S. Uses include their urine as a deer attractant and to mask human scent, their meat for obvious commercial reasons and as targets at pay-to-shoot facilities in some part of the country. In the world of health supplements, deer antler velvet—the soft, blood vessel-rich tissue that feeds a buck's annual antler growth—is being marketed as a means to boost strength and endurance, improve immune system function, and enhance recovery from injury. At least one high-profile National Football League player is reported to have used it. Some cultures even consider powdered deer antler capable of enhancing the sexual experience.

This latest is the second incident of CWD-infected deer at this Crow Wing County farm, the first occurring in 2016. The area surrounding the farm became a monitoring zone after the 2016 event, the farm itself is now the subject of a quarantine. This means that no animals can legally be shipped elsewhere, nor can deer from the outside be brought in. Under a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources order, sport hunters have been required to have deer they harvest in proximity to the farm tested. So far, all results have been negative. The quarantine period was expected to end in another year, but with the latest CWD discovery it's now expected to be extended.

CWD is generally passed to a healthy deer when it comes in contact with bodily fluids—such as saliva—from an infected deer, potentially by something as simple as nose-to-nose contact. But the microscopic vector for the disease can remain in the soil or a water source after the deer that left it is gone. Meaning, it's not necessary for healthy and infected animals to even come into direct contact for CWD to be spread. This makes it extremely difficult to contain.

CWD was first identified in a herd of captive elk in Colorado in 1967, and has made its way East in the half-century since. Transporting of infected captive animals is considered by many to be the best candidate to blame for its traveling that distance in that time.

The disease first appeared in Minnesota at captive deer and elk farms in the Southeast. It has since been found in wild deer in two counties, the first cases being in close proximity to farms known to have the disease. Between 2016 and the start of the 2018 deer hunting season, a total 17 wild deer had tested positive for CWD in the Southeast. Already during the first two weeks of the 2018 season, six more wild deer there have tested positive.

The Minnesota DNR has aggressively tried to contain the disease. Beyond its testing program during the deer seasons, the agency has conducted special intensive harvest—notably in 2011—to reduce the density of wild deer near where the first infected wild animals were found. The purpose was to minimize the chance of its spread among more wild deer.

Nearby Wisconsin, separated from Minnesota only by the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, and by an imaginary map line in the territory to the north, has no track record of concerted effort to keep CWD out of its wild deer. It's estimated that 40% or more of whitetails in Wisconsin carry CWD. The disease does not immediately wipe out a deer herd, because CWD's incubation stage—before signs of illness become apparent—can be up to 18-24 months. Such "smart diseases" permit their carriers to mature and reproduce before they weaken and kill them.

Like the closely-related mad cow disease in domestic cattle, CWD kills a deer or elk's brain cells, leaving a void where those cells were when healthy. The result is sometimes compared to a sponge. Thus the word "spongiform" in CWD's scientific name: "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy." Transmissible means contagious; encephalopathy means attacking the brain. Effects include loss of vital body functions, most visible as thin, sickly-looking animals, further justifying the word "wasting" in the disease's common name.

There are roughly 400 captive wild deer and elk farms in Minnesota, the estimated number of animals believed to exceed 9,000. Such farming is a relatively little-known industry among those who don't hunt. But an article in Modern Farmer Magazine carried the headline: Deer Farming, the Next Adventure in Agriculture. It described these animals as an "adaptable, low-maintenance" type of livestock, able to be profitably raised on small tracts of agriculturally-marginal land. In other words, land that might not grow a profitable crop of corn or soybeans just might grow a profitable crop of deer.

Why, one might ask, can the DNR do little more than monitor wild deer harvested by hunters after CWD is found on a captive deer or elk farm? It's a matter of jurisdiction. Farms, including deer and elk farms, are governed not by the DNR, but by the State Board of Animal Health.

There is not exactly a history of close cooperation between these agencies. In fact, in April of this year the Minnesota Legislative Auditor issued a report critical of the Board of Animal Health's oversight of these captive farms. In particular, it faulted the Board for not enforcing existing rules that require farmers to participate in testing than one of their animals dies of apparent disease. Since 2002, CWD has been found in animals on eight deer and elk farms in Minnesota.

Also, the controls to keep captive and wild deer apart are weaker than they should be. For example, some farms—like the one noted in Crow Wing County—have single rather than double fences, which can potentially allow wild and captive deer to make contact with one another.

The other farms where CWD has been found have eventually been "depopulated." Meaning, the animals there were liquidated rather than remaining under quarantine. These farmers are compensated for the loss, even though the taxpayers who fund the government payments are not to blame. These funds are in short supply, dependent on a federal farm bill that is currently in limbo in Congress.

But a bigger question might be: is it acceptable to continue tolerating this potential risk to a $1 billion economic impact on the State of Minnesota? This is the estimated value of expenditures tied to the state's deer hunting tradition. Maybe the time is now to find a way to buy out these farms and end captive deer and elk raising in Minnesota. The genie may already be out of the bottle. But why not try to put the stopper on that bottle if we can?

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