Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Disease control

John Hart knows the work he does isn't popular with the locals around here, but he says most of them accept it. A wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency in Grand Rapids, Hart is overseeing the sharp-s...

A whitetail deer

John Hart knows the work he does isn't popular with the locals around here, but he says most of them accept it.

A wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency in Grand Rapids, Hart is overseeing the sharp-shooting campaign now under way to remove additional deer from the core area of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in Roseau and northern Beltrami counties.

"The people up here have been some of the finest I've worked with," Hart said. "Even the folks who don't agree are respectful and sincere. From the landowners to the local people, they're going to help you out if they can."

A contagious respiratory disease, bovine TB first was found in cattle herds near Skime in 2005, and subsequent testing of more than 3,000 deer has found 13 cases. Four deer taken during last fall's hunting seasons also showed signs of the disease and likely will bring the total to 17 once test results are final.

All of the positive deer have come within a few miles of Skime.

ADVERTISEMENT

That's where Hart and the six other sharpshooters working with him come into play. For the second consecutive winter, the Department of Natural Resources has contracted with USDA Wildlife Services to remove deer in the Skime area.

Wildlife Services specializes in animal control efforts, which in Minnesota include timber wolf complaints, cormorant culling on Leech Lake and deer removal.

Sharpshooters last winter killed 488 deer near Skime; this year's effort began Feb. 11 and is scheduled to last about five weeks.

USDA doesn't allow anyone to accompany sharpshooters in the field when they're killing deer, but Hart gave a daytime tour of several sites baited with corn - set up to draw deer into shooting range - to shed light on the work they do and the equipment they use.

From thermal-imaging equipment and night-vision scopes, to rifles equipped with sound-suppression devices, this is high-tech stuff that bears no resemblance to sport hunting.

Nor is it meant to, Hart says.

"This is simply a deer-sampling and herd-reduction effort," he said. "The tools are there to allow us to do this more effectively and more efficiently."

According to Hart, the sharp shooting now under way is necessary to collect more deer for TB testing and to reduce the risk of further spreading the disease to deer and cattle herds.

ADVERTISEMENT

This year's sharp-shooting budget is $100,000, compared with $130,000 last year; the DNR and USDA share in funding the project. It's just one part of a multi-agency effort that also includes increased testing of cattle herds and construction of high fences to keep deer out of cattle producers' feed supplies, Hart says.

"It's really an integrated approach with a lot of agencies," he said. "We're just one small part of the project."

Ask just about anyone who lives up here, though, and they'll tell you it's the sharp-shooting that generates the most discussion, even though Hart and his crew don't seek attention.

Much of the sharpshooters' work is done under cover of darkness. This year, Hart says, the crew is working about 50 baiting sites on a mix of public and private land. Some are located along rural roads, while stationary sites are set up farther back in the woods and accessible only by foot or snowmobile.

For the roadside sites, the driver uses a thermal imaging device mounted on the window, while the shooter sits in the back seat with a suppressed .308 rifle equipped a variable-power night vision scope.

"Thermal imaging adds safety to our efforts," Hart said. "Imagine a glow-in-the-dark albino deer, and that's what it looks like. It's very easy to determine a deer, vs. an elk or human."

Crew members working the stationary sites use night vision scopes and shoot from a ground blind or, in some cases, permanent stands with landowner permission.

Making contact with area landowners is a big part of the job, Hart says, and sharpshooters won't access private land without permission.

ADVERTISEMENT

That job has been easier this winter, Hart says. Last year, initial news of the planned sharp-shooting effort generated intense local opposition, and bright yellow signs reading "Sharp shooters stay off!" dotted the countryside.

Hart says he thinks much of the local opposition last year stemmed from a lack of awareness of who was actually doing the work.

"When we were able to put a face on it, we established a comfort level," Hart said.

Dan Olson, who operates an auto repair shop near Skime, says he doesn't think the local sentiment is any different than last year, even though the yellow signs are gone.

"Some (landowners) are letting them go on their land, but there aren't no deer anyway," Olson said. "A lot of them, I think they just figure the heck with it, let's go with the program and get it done with. I'm just afraid that it isn't ever going to be done with."

Deer also are acting differently this winter, Hart says. Last year, about a third of the deer killed were in barnyards or other sites with human activity. Efforts to remove those deer, along with high fences and a ban on recreational feeding, have changed the pattern this winter, Hart says.

That change is significant, he says, even though winter aerial surveys showed only a modest decline in deer numbers from last year in the TB core area. The deer in the core area now are more spread out.

"From a disease-transmission standpoint, the risk is less because they eliminated the farmyard deer," Hart said. "The remaining deer moved into the area but haven't developed that pattern."

After a kill, shooters tag the deer and log the location where it was shot. Deer then are taken to Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River for testing. Animals that appear healthy are donated ? full carcass, with hides intact ? to people who have put their name on a lengthy waiting list.

Hart says the federal shooters strive for neck shots, which deliver quick, humane kills yet don't interfere with testing efforts. There have been occasions where a heart or lung shot creates a strange exit wound that damages some of the meat, he says.

With 111 deer killed as of Friday, Hart says he doesn't expect sharpshooters will match last year's total, although that could change as temperatures rise and deer become more active.

There's no set goal, he says, and people shouldn't think of the effort in terms of dollars per deer.

"Sometimes, the public tends to perceive the cost to what it would take for them to pull the trigger, but there's so much more cost in terms of bait, gas, sampling and protocol. You also have to look at the cost to both agriculture and sport hunting.

"If there's questions about why we're doing this instead of locals, our folks are very experienced with a wide variety of wildlife and disease management projects," Hart said. "We have the ability to devote our full resources to the project."

Still, as a deer hunter himself, Hart says he understands why the work isn't popular.

"I empathize with the folks," he said. "Deer hunting is such an important part of recreation up here. We've tried very hard to respect everybody's different opinions throughout this thing.

"This is a small area, and if (TB) can be confined and taken care of, deer are going to very quickly re-inhabit this area."

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper

A whitetail deer

What To Read Next
Host Bryan Piatt is joined by Matt Entz, head coach of the North Dakota State Bison football team, to discuss the pressures of leading the program and how mental health is addressed with his players.
Artificial intelligence can now act as an artist or a writer. Does that mean AI is ready to play doctor? Many institutions, including Mayo Clinic, believe that AI is ready to become a useful tool.
Columnist Carol Bradley Bursack lists the various reason why some older adults may begin to shuffle as they age.
The Buffalo Bills safety who suffered a cardiac arrest on Monday Night Football in January is urging people to learn how to save lives the way his was saved.