Although we’re far outside the normal time when deer hunters are obsessed with Minnesota’s favorite big game animal, these are far from normal times. The reason some are preoccupied with whitetails right now is the recent revelation that more deer — more widely dispersed deer — have been found infected with deadly chronic wasting disease, which we know by the now all-too-familiar acronym CWD.
CWD is a disease of the deer’s nervous system, causing deterioration of brain tissue and leading progressively to physical incapacity and death. It’s spread by contact between deer, or between a deer and microscopic “prions” in the soil that originated in a deer’s bodily fluids. It’s said that something as simple as nose-to-nose contact between deer can transmit the disease.
CWD was once a disease that “the other guy” had to worry about. Those others were Badgerland deer hunters across the border in Wisconsin. Then the disease was found in captive elk on a farm in Southeast Minnesota. Eventually it was found in wild deer within traveling range of those diseased captive animals. Putting two and two together logically led to the conclusion that the disease had been imported with the elk from outside Minnesota. CWD is common in the West, where it is found in both elk and deer. All members of the deer family, including moose, are vulnerable.
The real shock came when CWD was found in two deer on a trophy deer farm — inside whose fenced enclosure deer could be shot for a fee — in Crow Wing County in 2016, not far from Brainerd. The disease had jumped more than 200 miles, more than could have been accomplished by simple deer-to-deer transmission. Four more deer tested positive on this farm in 2018.
During the last several seasons, hunters harvesting deer in a surveillance zone around the farm were required to have their deer tested for CWD. One wild deer outside the farm has tested positive. As a result of this history, the deer herd has been “depopulated,” a sanitized term for shooting the remaining animals. Among the deer that federal personnel shot last month, seven more were found to have CWD, while 82 tested negative. But another baker’s dozen were found dead, their bodies too decomposed to yield valid test results. Their dying of natural causes other than CWD seems highly unlikely.
Depopulation is generally not a dead loss to deer and elk farmers, since they are typically reimbursed; usually this comes via taxpayer funding. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was reported to be the compensation source for the Crow Wing County herd. But there are other costs, too. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) personnel tested upwards of 8,000 deer harvested by hunters between 2016 and 2018 in that area, at a cost that has been stated to be roughly $150,000 per year.
Ironically, this has been paid primarily by deer hunters through license revenues. Eliminating the deer from the Crow Wing County farm does not eliminate the threat. It’s believed that the infecting agent prions can remain viable and able to infect more deer for years. Exactly how long is not clear. Depopulated farms are required to maintain their fences for five years to prevent wild deer from entering and being exposed to CWD. But that is a regulatory requirement, not a scientific determination of the length of time the earth inside the enclosure can infect other deer.
What troubles many is that three years elapsed between first discovery and depopulation of the Crow Wing County herd. Deer farmers are currently not required to depopulate. Some have maintained that their herds can be cured, or cleansed, of CWD. The Crow Wing County case seems to confirm that to be a myth.
Deer farming is an industry that is well organized and promotes itself as a way to make use of marginal land that may not be suitable for raising traditional farm crops or livestock. Also in its marketing efforts are the messages that deer farming aids conservation by “preserving open space for wildlife,” and “helps preserve our American outdoor traditions.” It’s not clear how keeping captive deer inside fenced enclosures preserves open space for wildlife, or what traditions will be preserved by shooting deer that have not developed and lived by their wild instincts.
There are roughly 400 deer farms in Minnesota. It is unlikely that the CWD problem will go away — or be contained — without more herd depopulations, and more expenditures of DNR time and effort to monitor outbreak areas during hunting seasons. Who will pay for this? Non-hunters understandably might be reluctant to have their taxes used to preserve a hunting tradition they don’t participate in, or perhaps even oppose. Deer hunters do not want to be the only ones who pay to solve a problem they did not create.
Within the last week lawmakers in St. Paul were debating how to control the CWD outbreak, along with addressing other natural resource management issues. One very encouraging note is that both the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-controlled state Senate were in agreement that if CWD is found on a captive deer or elk farm, that herd should be destroyed.
Maybe. The Senate preference is for depopulating only if federal funding to reimburse the farmer is available. House bill language would require herd depopulating regardless. The alternative in such cases, of course, would be to use state funds.
The best argument for general tax revenue funding of CWD monitoring and control is that deer hunting is a huge generator of tourism dollars; just like fishing. Minnesota’s 500,000 deer hunters are estimated to spend roughly $450 million each year on lodging, meals, transportation, equipment and incidentals. More than $30 million in state and local tax revenues are generated by deer hunting in a typical year.
The big question, of course, is how hunter participation might change — or not — if CWD were to escalate out of control here. Deer can now be tested after being harvested, so at least a hunter should know — post mortem — if their deer is CWD-free. There is no proof that CWD can affect humans, but just enough doubt — based on experiments with monkeys — that some might not be fully convinced. If the odds that a deer you shot might be infected were to rise significantly, would you continue to hunt? How about the casual hunter? How about the diehard?
Hopefully, Minnesota deer hunters as a whole will not have to face such an unwelcome choice.