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DNR meeting: Residents butt heads over deer farm's culpability in CWD's spread

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Carl Medin asks a question Monday, March 4, at an open meeting presented by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health at The Woods restaurant to deal with the next steps after a wild white-tailed deer was found dead and later tested positive for chronic wasting disease near Merrifield. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 2 / 6
Dr. Linda Glaser with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health talks about the fencing around a deer farm north of Merrifield Monday, March 4, at an open meeting at The Woods restaurant. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video3 / 6
George Selvestra asks questions at the open meeting Monday. March 4, at The Woods restaurant south of Merrifield. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health discussed plans for the area after a wild deer was found and tested positive for chronic wasting disease. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 4 / 6
Nate Thom, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources assistant area wildlife manager, checks a drop box Monday, March 4, for deer heads in the Mission Lake area. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video5 / 6
Dave Olfelt, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources northeast regional wildlife manager, opens the public meeting Monday, March 4, at The Woods restaurant. The room, which seats 300, was nearly filled for the meeting to discuss chronic wasting disease. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video6 / 6

MERRIFIELD—"Hey, Lou!" a man shouted from the back. "What came first? The CWD, or the deer farms?"

Lou Cornicelli, a wildlife researcher with the Minnesota Department of Resources, could only brush off the question and move on—another question with no easy answers in a meeting filled with them. A gathering of roughly 300 people Monday, March 4, packed themselves into The Woods' event center, just off County Highway 3, south of Merrifield.

With the Jan. 23 discovery (and Feb. 14 confirmation) of a carcass bearing chronic wasting disease—a degenerative neurological disease that inevitably ravages the brain and emaciates the body—by Upper Mission Lake, tensions are running high. Talks often touched upon southern Wisconsin—a stretch of counties where as much as 40 to 50 percent of deer are infected with CWD and the epidemic has spiraled out of control.

"If we have other infected animals in the landscape around the farm, we want to remove them," Cornicelli said. "We know this deer's symptomatic, it's likely been shedding prions for a while. We want to do what we can to remove deer from around this area now. We do not want to end up like Wisconsin."

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"If we have other infected animals in the landscape around the farm, we want to remove them." - Lou Cornicelli, a wildlife researcher with the Minnesota Department of Resources.

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As speakers noted, efforts to contain CWD going back to its discovery in the mid-'60s are largely unsuccessful beyond eradicating enough deer to squelch little pockets of the outbreak before it can mature into a full-blown epidemic. Unlike viruses, bacteria or fungi, CWD manifests in malformed proteins, or prions, which cannot be treated by virtually any traditional anti-pathogenic method.

The plan as it is now, Cornicelli said, is to kill as many deer as possible—without completely eradicating the deer population—in the roughly 2-mile radius around where the infection was discovered between March 2 to March 24.

The Minnesota DNR is providing property owners of more than 10 acres of land with unlimited hunting permits during that time period. People who take part in the program are advised to register each carcass for testing, to not move any carcasses or venison away from the 2-mile radius until they can be verified as clean, and to notify authorities of any property owners not living in the area, as well as any individuals illegally transporting deer or deer products.

These prions are primarily transmitted through saliva, feces or urine—though they also lodge themselves in tissue, or have been documented to entrench themselves in soil for at least 16 years. In Crow Wing County, CWD-infected deer were first confirmed in 2016 on the 112-acre deer farm, Trophy Woods Ranch, less than a half-mile from the infected wild carcass.

Speakers noted the ranch—which reported 7 cases of confirmed CWD as recently as mid-2018—features a main enclave of pens with two layers of fences, while the game preserve portion only features one fence. Cornicelli said the ranch is the likely source of the disease. And therein lies the heart of an often heated, and sometimes downright acrimonious night.

"We've had chronic wasting disease in the state for quite a while, it's a mess down south and in Wisconsin, and it seems deer farms tend to be the culprit in terms of spreading the disease—including the one we have here," said Carl Medin, a resident of Crosslake whose son has property in the 2-mile radius. "The courts have the authority to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease. I'm wondering why they haven't done more to stop the spread, instead of waiting until we kinda have a disaster on our hands?"

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"The courts have the authority to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease. I'm wondering why they haven't done more to stop the spread, instead of waiting until we kinda have a disaster on our hands?" - Carl Medin, a resident of Crosslake whose son has property in the 2-mile radius.

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Many comments of the evening followed in that vein—frustrated property owners who questioned why they had to now shoulder the role of responding to CWD. In turn, they pointed to deer farms that often harbor infected animals, and are not required by law to take a number of preventative measures or slaughter infected herds to stymie its transmission.

In answer to this, Cornicelli and his fellow speaker, Linda Glaser of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, responded they could only act within the authority the state Legislature had given them. This too, was a common response the duo gave.

On the other hand, members of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association and people more sympathetic to their position noted there are a variety of ways the disease can be transmitted from out of county or even out of state—whether that's taxidermists breaking importation laws, unsupervised drop areas for carcasses during hunting seasons, gut piles or other scenarios.

At any rate, a quick and effective response by the community as a whole is necessary, said Justin Barrick, a resident of Baxter who's been outspoken on the issue of CWD.

"I've been bow hunting Richland County, Wisconsin, with college buddies since 2006. When I started down there, we didn't think much about CWD, but the last four years about 40 percent of antlered bucks have had CWD and last year our two biggest bucks were positive," Barrick told all those assembled. "If we don't cooperate with the DNR and get this under control, this is what we're going to have in 10 years."

In his proposed budget, Gov. Tim Walz pushed for an urgent response to cases of CWD popping up in southeastern Minnesota, as well as cases in central Minnesota such as Crow Wing County—efforts to the tune of $4.57 million from the general fund for fiscal years 2020-21 and $1.1 million annually thereafter. In addition, $1.8 million from the 2020-21 Game and Fish Fund has been suggested to bankroll further deer management research.

According to DNR documents, these measures are intended to "aggressively protect" Minnesota deer populations through surveillance and response, law enforcement, as well as outreach to private property owners who control the majority of vulnerable areas.

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