No consensus on CWD management as bills take aim at deer farms


file photo The Legislature is looking at ways to combat chronic wasting disease in deer, but finding consensus in how to do so is proving difficult.

courtesy of Minnesota Board of Animal Health This map shows the locations of cervid farms, the majority of which raise deer. The primary chronic wasting disease endemic area is outlined in the southeast part of the state.

Bills that aim to curb chronic wasting disease among Minnesota deer have legislators debating how best to manage the malady.

Lines have been drawn on multiple fronts: urban and rural, hunter and game farm operator and, to an extent, the state Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health.

A group of bills, many introduced by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, would bring stricter oversight to the game farm business, which has been at the center of the CWD outbreak in Minnesota. The industry mounted opposition in response, but Becker-Finn said that some headaches are necessary to halt the disease’s spread.

“There are also things that hunters have to [do to] change their behaviors,” said Becker-Finn, who represents District 42A. “Everybody’s going to have to change. And it might be real hard, and nobody’s really happy about it.”

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer and related animals of the cervid family. It’s always fatal, and toward the end it presents the telltale signs of deteriorating hair, erratic behavior and weight loss. But an animal can carry CWD for years before showing signs, and it’s highly transmissible and resilient before symptoms appear.

CWD is far more prevalent in Wisconsin, but emerging cases in Minnesota have caught the state’s attention, and in the past decade, state agencies have put millions of dollars into testing, monitoring and other efforts to combat it. Gov. Tim Walz recently proposed an infusion of more than $4.5 million to fight CWD.

State officials have identified 18 wild deer with the disease, and eight deer and elk farms have had positive CWD tests, some of which had entire herds infected. There isn’t absolute evidence that points to wild or captive deer as the origin of CWD in Minnesota, but a positive case in the wild has always been in proximity to a farm with CWD in its herds. The state calls these endemic areas.

Though most CWD cases are in southeast Minnesota, the most recent was found in a wild deer in central Minnesota’s Crow Wing County. It happened as a result of ongoing state monitoring that started after deer in a nearby game farm tested positive for the disease.

“That’s a farm where they’ve had multiple positives over several years, yet the Board of Animal Health continues to license them and claims they don’t have authority to close them down,” Becker-Finn said.

 

Sides of the fence

There are a number of bills introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that are related to CWD management. On March 7, the House Agriculture and Food Finance Policy Division took on three of Becker-Finn’s bills, as well as one from state Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul.

The bills address cervid farms, the vast majority of which raise deer. Though they’re called farms, they raise the deer so customers can pay to shoot an animal inside a fenced site.

The changes proposed in the bills include a moratorium on animal transfers and new farm licenses, a voluntary buyout program, requirements for double fencing and the mandatory depopulation of herds infected with CWD.

Becker-Finn introduced the bills during the committee meeting, and she brought supporters from hunting groups and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

There was opposition, too, who worried that game farms would be forced out of business. One lobbyist called it the death of deer farming in Minnesota. Lawmakers pushed back too.

“There is a villain in these bills,” said Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg. “Because these bills, all four of these bills, are about farmed Cervidae.”

Steve Porter, who runs Steve Porter’s Trophy Whitetail farm in Lake Bronson, believes that farms aren’t the source of CWD in Minnesota. On March 7, he asked the ag committee why all game farms should be subject to new regulation.

“I have a clean herd,” he said. “Then why are we talking about double fencing? It is to protect my herd from the wild deer? At a cost of about $75,000 for me to double fence my farm, which I simply cannot afford.”

 

Board matters

While the Board of Animal Health has jurisdiction over deer farms, it isn’t allowed to force one to get rid of an infected herd.

“It is up to the herd owner,” said Beth Thompson, executive director of the board, at the March 7 committee hearing. “We do not have that statute in place that allows us to just go in and depopulate the herd.”

Deer farms are required to get every deer that dies in the herd tested for CWD — the current test for the disease is post-mortem. If a deer tests positive, the herd can be quarantined, or the owner can voluntarily depopulate and potentially receive a buyout. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program leads that final process.

But the board’s oversight stops at the farm fence. The DNR then oversees monitoring of the wild deer population in the surrounding areas.

One of Becker-Finn’s bills suggests that the entire process would be better handled only by the DNR, rather than the Board of Animal Health, which is made up of ag producers and veterinarians.

“It’s not necessarily that the Board of Animal Health is doing things completely wrong, but at the end of the day they see things through an agriculture lens,” Becker-Finn said.

That particular bill faces an uphill battle. Grant Wilson, director of fish and wildlife for DNR, said on March 7 that the agency isn’t seeking oversight responsibility for deer farms.

But the oversight of the Board of Animal Health has come under scrutiny as too friendly to industry. The Star Tribune reported in March 2018 that a board-inspected deer farm with a CWD-infected herd had inadequate fencing, putting wild deer at risk of exposure. 

A month later, the state Office of the Legislative Auditor released a critical report of the board. Among the findings were that it didn’t fully enforce regulations and that it isn’t required to take close inventories of herds.

Thompson was asked about that auditor’s report on March 7.

“We’re putting into place a series of trainings for the farmers,” she said in response. “Those people that have the deer and elk and other cervid species, and also the veterinarians that have those samples.”

The auditor’s report also cited the “strained” relationship between the board and DNR in their separate-but-interconnected deer management roles. It includes a lack of data sharing between the agencies at a time when officials are trying to get a better understanding of CWD’s spread.

 

Public relations

The board’s web page that provides CWD information on deer and elk only gives one side of the issue. There are multiple references to CWD confirmations in wild deer and no indication that it’s been found in the farmed deer herds overseen by the board. The maps provided make no mention that CWD occurs on game farms, only showing wild deer cases.

The board’s news releases, posted elsewhere on the website, do mention positive CWD findings at those facilities, but a reader of the deer and elk informational page wouldn’t get that impression. A spokesman for the board said it wasn’t an intentional omission. He added that the web page serves as a guide to “exterior” sources of information. He then said the disease is gone from game farms that have depopulated under USDA guidance and, thus, farmed cases weren’t necessary for their CWD page.

“It’s not something that we’re actively promoting on, where it currently is or most recently was,” said Michael Crusan, the Board of Animal Health spokesman.

As the debate continues, Becker-Finn admits that there are hard choices to make, saying at one point that the proposals don’t feel fully fair to any party. But she sees the bills as protective in the long term.

“We have a Constitutional right to hunt in Minnesota,” she said. “If there aren’t enough healthy animals to eat, I don’t know that the right is still there.”

 

–Matt Hudson can be reached at mhudson@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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