MERRIFIELD, Minn. —Frustrations boiled over during a tense meeting between Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokespeople and concerned hunters at The Woods restaurant, Monday, March 4. Now the owner of the deer farm at the heart of the controversy is speaking out.
Since the Jan. 23 discovery (and Feb. 14 confirmation) of a wild deer carcass bearing chronic wasting disease—a degenerative neurological condition that inevitably ravages the brain and emaciates the body—by Upper Mission Lake, tensions are running high.
It's the first documented case of a wild deer with CWD in Crow Wing County and its close proximity to Trophy Woods Ranch—which in 2016, determined it had CWD-infected animals in its enclosure—meant fears and tempers boiled during a community gathering Monday night, with no shortage of vitriol directed at the game preserve and other deer farms across the state.
During the meeting, speakers noted the 112-acre ranch—which reported seven 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. DNR wildlife researcher Lou Cornicelli said the ranch is the likely source of the disease. Trophy Woods Ranch owner Kevin Schmidt noted he's bought animals from other game farms with CWD, including southern Wisconsin—the epicenter of the epidemic in the Midwest.
CWD 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. The majority of traditional anti-pathogenic methods are ineffective in stopping CWD.
Schmidt challenged allegations his deer farm, or the infected animals inside its fences, led to the disease's spread into the wild deer population in Crow Wing County.
"It's more important to me, outside (the game preserve enclosure) than it is inside, because there's so many more variables. Inside the fence, it can be controlled," said Schmidt, who noted he's been harrassed on his own property. "Nobody cares about this more than I do. I've got 50 years invested in hunting. There's seven generations of hunters on our farm."
Schmidt said it's unlikely wild deer came into contact with infected deer in the hunting preserve portion of the farm—the area where clients are allowed to hunt the animals and guarded by a single barrier of fence instead of the DNR and Minnesota Board of Animal Health recommended two, which creates a wider barrier between an encounter between fenced in animals and the wild population. In 2017, the deer were out in the preserve for nine days. In 2018, that number dropped to two.
Transmitting CWD is not so much about the amount of time deer spend around infected members of the population, Schmidt said, it's more about the number of exposures. Whether or not the enclosure has one, two, three or more levels of fencing, or whether that fence is 8 feet high or 12 feet high, is largely inconsequential, he added.
Carrion eaters, particularly, birds like crows, vultures, or eagles, aren't inhibited by these barriers, he said. Animals may starve, succumb to another disease or harm themselves running into barriers and die of injuries, or be killed by another deer in the enclosure, or be a fawn lost to cold temperatures.
Instead, Schmidt pointed to a number of misconceptions—commonly shared by the general public, and, in some cases, disseminated by the Minnesota DNR—about CWD and the 2019 confirmed carcass in particular.
Schmidt said between 2012 and 2016—the latter being when an infected animal was first discovered on his deer farm—there were four deer either killed by neighbors or discovered after their deaths near his property, but outside the enclosure.
Each of these animals, he noted, showed many of the telltale signs of CWD: disorientation, listless and lethargic behaviors, distended bellies from intestinal inflammation, as well as advanced emaciation archetypical of a wasting disorder.
Schmidt said in conversations with neighbors they agreed these animals needed to be tested for CWD. In multiple instances, he added, professionals—the likes of taxidermists and meat processors—advised local residents to have the carcasses tested, or refused to deal with such a sickly animal all together.
Schmidt said he assumed these carcasses were handed over to the DNR for testing, but he alleged they were not tested all the same. All in all, prior to the initial discovery in 2016, Schmidt contended the DNR had not tested deer in the area for 18 years.
Discrepancies with the DNR
There is a disconnect between the DNR and the issue on the ground as it pertains to wildlife and property owners, Schmidt said. Evidenced, he noted, by the fact that Tuesday's speakers—Cornicelli and Linda Glaser of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health—gave some inaccurate information to meeting-goers. Schmidt was not present at Monday's meeting.
There are a number of discrepancies. In answer to a question Tuesday evening, Glaser said Schmidt doesn't interbreed white-tailed and mule deer, but Schmidt characterized the practice as a cornerstone of his operation.
While Cornicelli estimated there would be 35 deer per square mile, Schmidt described it as wildly off-base and said local DNR officials have contacted him, saying they're unable to find deer at all, let alone in such density.
Schmidt also contested the DNR's assertion the carcass was found within a half-mile of the farm, stating that it was actually farther away.
And, during Monday's meeting, while Cornicelli chuckled at the notion of unsupervised carcass drop points near the farm, Schmidt said he has photo evidence of deer carcasses still being dropped off at places that were (and, to a certain degree, still are) commonly used to dispose of carcasses since the '80s and '90s. In a similar vein, he said the DNR wouldn't acknowledge the existence of local features like snowmobile trails or other evidence of potential hunter activity.
The root of the problem is oversight by DNR heads from hundreds of miles away, Schmidt said.
"Get your guys here, get them out of the truck," said Schmidt, who noted he's had to place "No Trespassing" signs to deter carcass dumping on his property. The DNR should make more efforts to speak with neighbors and people in the area, Schmidt said, such as snowmobile clubs, instead of leaning only on their own agents' expertise.
In addition, Schmidt said, DNR officials mischaracterized the animal discovered Jan. 23 by Upper Mission Lake. According to the agency's epidemiology—which the DNR confirmed was partially leaked to the public—the deer was a young doe that succumbed primarily to CWD, Schmidt said, but also showed signs of pneumonia.
However, Schmidt said, the deer—described in DNR reports as a young doe—wasn't old enough to incubate and subsequently die from CWD.
"The incubation period for CWD to the point of clinical is something like 30 to 36 months, some say 24 to 30 months—at any rate, it's much longer than that deer had lived," Schmidt said. "It hadn't lived long enough to become clinical."
In this case, Schmidt used the term "clinical" to describe when the disease has progressed enough to display evident symptoms.
"It wasn't old enough to die from CWD," Schmidt added. "Pneumonia was the cause, yeah, but then pneumonia can come from starvation, freezing to death."
In conclusion, Schmidt said it has to be an honest and comprehensive dialogue between hunters, deer farmers and agencies like the DNR to properly combat CWD before it turns into a full-blown epidemic in Crow Wing County and the northern portions of the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports for animals, CWD is always fatal, may have an incubation of more than a year and clear neurological signs may develop slowly. The CDC added the disease does not appear to naturally infect cattle or other domesticated animals.
As USA Today reported Feb. 16, it may only be a matter of time before chronic wasting disease is transmissible to humans, according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption with contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," Osterholm said. "It's possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."
In his talks with concerned residents, Cornicelli said the plan is to eradicate as many deer as possible—but not all—within a 2-mile radius of the infected wild carcass' location between March 2 to March 24.
The Minnesota DNR is mailing property owners of 10 acres or more of land with unlimited hunting permits during that time period. It should be noted, property owners with less than 10 acres of land can request to have hunting permits provided to them.
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.