GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. -- After the 2021 Minnesota Legislature adjourned earlier this month without taking major action to fight chronic wasting disease, the state’s largest deer hunters’ group is now pushing for an outright end to deer farms to stop the spread of the disease from captive deer into the wild.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association wants to ban transportation of farmed deer within the state, except deer going directly to slaughter, and ban any new farmed deer from entering the state.
The group also is calling for a moratorium on any new deer farm licenses and then a phased, state-funded buyout of all existing deer herds over several years, eventually eliminating all deer farming in Minnesota.
“We’re really past the point of taking incremental measures now, like double fencing or restricting (shipping) movement of farmed deer,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “For the sake of the state’s population of wild deer, and our tradition of deer hunting, we need to eliminate deer farms entirely.”
The effort comes after a case in Beltrami County this spring where a deer farm had multiple infected animals and had shared deer with a dozen or more additional farms in Minnesota and four other states. Moreover, dead deer from the Beltrami County herd were illegally dumped on public land where traces of the disease remain in the soil.
A representative of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association did not immediately return requests to comment on the association's proposal. But deer farmers have said they are being unfairly targeted for a disease that is already spreading on its own in the wild.
Engwall said the association is planning to push the deer herd buyout plan in coming months to put pressure on the 2022 Minnesota Legislature after the recent session failed to enact any new deer farm regulations.
The 2021 Legislature did move to give the Department of Natural Resources joint or “concurrent” enforcement of existing state laws on deer farms only, sharing the job with the Board of Animal Health. But the Legislature, namely the Senate, stopped short of action to limit movement of deer between farms or other restrictions on deer farms that both the deer hunters group and DNR wildlife officials had asked for.
The joint agency enforcement was passed after the Senate killed a request by Gov. Tim Walz to hand all regulation of deer farms to the DNR instead of the Board of Animal Health, which many critics say is biased in favor of farmers. In 2018 the nonpartisan Minnesota Legislative Auditor's Office issued a report that said the Board of Animal Health was dominated by farming interests and fell short on regulations that could prevent CWD from spreading.
"It's clear that we need a new strategy to address the problem of CWD in farmed white-tailed deer," the governor wrote lawmakers in May.
A last-minute amendment to the omnibus environment bill that would have imposed a moratorium on any new deer farms in the state failed 29-36 on a party-line vote with Republicans opposing it as being anti-farmer.
Engwall said his group’s nearly 20,000 members — many of them farmers — are frustrated that the state Senate is threatening the future of the state’s wild deer herd by ignoring the pleas of nearly 500,000 deer hunters to favor fewer than 300 deer farms.
Buy them out, shut them down
Supporters say there is precedent for the state buying out a small number of commercial businesses to improve natural resources for the general public — namely the 1980s taxpayer-funded buyout of commercial fishermen on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake.
The big lakes, which seemed on the verge of being fished out, responded quickly and became among the best sportfishing lakes in the nation, thus benefiting tens of thousands of anglers and hundreds of businesses that serve them rather than a handful of netting operations.
In the case of deer farms, the state would likely pay for the animals but not the farmland or other operations.
“I’d argue that the case for buying out deer herds is even stronger because, while the fishing started to recover as soon as you took the nets out of the lakes, CWD is here to stay. Wherever it spreads into the wild, we can’t get rid of it,” Engwall said. “We need action now.”
According to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the state agency that regulates deer farms, the state currently has 259 farmed cervid herds with a total of 7,677 animals, not including fawns from 2021. That's down nearly 100 farms from just a few years ago. The farms are spread across the state and raise whitetail deer, mule deer, elk and exotic deer.
Some of the farmed animals are grown to be used in so-called “canned’’ deer hunts where shooters pay thousands of dollars to kill a buck or bull with massive antlers. Some of the deer are slaughtered and the venison sold. Others are raised for their genetic viability, namely huge antlers. And other farms raise deer to capture the urine for deer hunting scents.
Engwall said his group has not yet calculated how much it would cost to buy out all existing deer herds in the state but that it’s likely to run into the millions of dollars. It’s possible the money could come from the state’s general fund, from dedicated conservation accounts, a surcharge on deer hunting licenses or a combination of sources.
Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays deer farmers for all deer that are killed to test for chronic wasting disease.
Beltrami County case pushed issue
Engwall said the issue of chronic wasting disease being spread between deer farms, and then between deer farm animals and wild animals, has reached crisis proportions in Minnesota after the Beltrami County case unfolded this spring, the farthest north it has been found in the state.
That deer farm north of Bemidji was first quarantined last October after receiving a deer from a potentially infested herd in Winona County. Then, in April, a deer in the Beltrami County herd tested positive for the always-fatal, brain-wasting disease. State officials then killed another 54 deer on the farm and found 12 more with chronic wasting disease.
While the disease can spread in the wild between wild deer, it usually moves slowly, because wild deer have small home ranges. But put infected deer on trucks and trailers and move them around the state, or the nation, to different farms, and the disease spreads far and wide and fast, Engwall noted.
“Just like we work to slow the spread of invasive species by not having people move them around, we need to slow the spread of CWD,” he said.
Since May, investigators have found links between the infected Beltrami County farm and nine other deer farms across the state. Those five quarantined herds account for about 200 deer that are now being killed and tested. And even more potentially infected deer were also transported to at least four other states.
“What's concerning about this particular investigation is that it has spread,” said Courtney Wheeler, senior veterinarian at the Board of Animal Health, in May. The farms are far apart “so it's illustrating the potential for this disease to spread rather quickly through movements of farmed animals.”
Not only was the Beltrami County deer farm itself infested with the disease, but the owner also disposed of several infected dead deer on nearby public land, and an investigation by University of Minnesota experts found disease-carrying prions in the soil at that location. Those prions are believed able to remain viable in the soil and spread the disease for years after the original host animal dies.
Engwall said the Beltrami County case shows exactly how and why the state’s current deer farm regulations and enforcement are “utterly inadequate”’ and failing to stop chronic wasting disease from spreading.
“The Beltrami County situation has galvanized the support of deer hunters and others interested in our wild deer herd, and the time has come to take action,’’ Engwall said. “We simply can't afford to wait any longer as the threat to the wild deer herd is too great.”
The DNR is working with Beltrami County to build a fence around the infected site to limit exposure to wild deer, said Craig Olfelt, Fish and Wildlife Division director of the Minnesota DNR.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep other animals from being exposed to those prions,’’ Olfelt said.
As with similar Minnesota outbreaks, including around a Crow Wing County deer farm near Brainerd in 2019, the DNR plans to require hunters submit their harvested deer for testing this fall for many miles around the Beltrami County sites to see if the disease has moved into the wild.
“At least for the first weekend (of Minnesota firearms deer season in November) we’re going to have mandatory testing in a very large area, from Deer River up through Blackduck and Bemidji into Koochiching County,’’ Olfelt noted.
Deer feeding and baiting bans also will be imposed on every county that touches Beltrami County, including Itasca, Cass and Koochiching.
The DNR also will work with the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth bands of Ojibwe on plans for sampling hunter-harvested deer.
In a statement in May, DNR officials said Beltrami County farm situation “significantly changes the risk assessment and concern about CWD in Minnesota.” The DNR said the state must “move to a more proactive and preventative approach to addressing systemic gaps in the farmed deer system.”
About chronic wasting disease
Chronic wasting disease is an always-fatal neurological disease affecting the cervidae family — deer, elk, moose, reindeer and caribou. It causes spongy degeneration in the brain of an infected animal.
It belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies believed to be caused by prions, which are abnormal proteins that self-replicate within an infected animal. Prions are highly resistant to disinfectants, heat or freezing. There are no vaccines or treatments.
It is similar to Scrapie in sheep and goats, mad cow disease in cattle as well as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans.
It was first recognized in a captive mule deer at a wildlife research facility in Colorado in the late 1960s. The disease has expanded to wild and/or captive animals across 26 states, three Canadian provinces, South Korea, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
So far it has not been known to pass from properly cooked venison to people, but experts warn against eating meat from an infected animal.
Source: Minnesota DNR