MERRIFIELD-A new step in the process meant to survey the scope of the potential spread of chronic wasting disease among Crow Wing County's deer population began Sunday, March 17. Wildlife disease specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture took to the woods near the Mission Lake Wildlife Management Area, searching for deer to test for the disease.

"The DNR would like us to collect some more deer so they can sample them for chronic wasting disease, and hopefully get a better handle on how widespread it is," said John Hart, a USDA wildlife disease specialist.

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The 10-day surveillance and collection project will cover a 2-mile radius surrounding the area where a wild doe, which tested positive for the deadly disease affecting deer and related animals, was found Jan. 23. The presence of CWD in the doe was confirmed Feb. 14. All carcasses collected by the specialists will be field dressed and transported to the Brainerd area Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office for dissection to prepare specimens for testing at the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University.

Chronic wasting disease is a degenerative neurological disease that will ravage the brain and body, eventually killing the animals. Unlike viruses, bacteria or fungi, CWD manifests in malformed proteins, or prions, which cannot be treated by virtually any traditional anti-pathogenic method.

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.

The Minnesota DNR also provided property owners of more than 10 acres of land with unlimited hunting permits between March 2 and March 24. People who take part in the program are advised to register each carcass for testing and to not move any carcasses or venison away from the 2-mile radius until they can be verified as clean.