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In death's shadow

March 27, 2002 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) by Doug Smith
Only six years ago, deer hunters convinced the Minnesota Legislature to impose a 50-cent surcharge on each deer license sold to fund an emergency deer feeding program during brutal winters.

The Department of Natural Resources opposed emergency feeding, saying it would be costly, unnecessary and ineffective. Because of recent mild winters, the feeding fund, now totaling $1.4 million, has never been tapped.

Now the organization that pushed hardest for the program _ the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association _ says those dollars perhaps should never be used to feed deer. The group says some of the money should instead be used to study Minnesota deer for the presence of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The recent discovery of the disease in wild deer in South Dakota and Wisconsin has heightened concerns that CWD, which causes deer and elk to grow thin and die, might show up in Minnesota.

"What would a full-fledged outbreak of CWD do in Minnesota? It would be devastating," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the deer hunters association. With nearly 600,000 deer hunters, the economic impact could be large, he said. One economic report estimated that deer hunting in Minnesota is responsible for $270 million in retail sales.

Managing the deer herd might be problematic for the DNR if a significant number of hunters elect to stay out of the woods. Though CWD is not known to be transmitted to humans, health officials have recommended that people not eat diseased animals.

In Wisconsin, 313 deer have been killed for CWD testing since early March in a 415-square-mile area west of Madison where three deer with CWD were shot by hunters last fall. The DNR plans to kill and test a total of 500 deer there to determine the scope of the disease. Test results haven't come back on any of the killed animals.

Minnesota officials are anxiously watching the situation unfold uncomfortably close to home.

While there are many unknowns about the disease, researchers believe it spreads by contact between animals. They say feeding deer concentrates the animals at unnatural densities, which is why the Deer Hunters Association recently recommended that Minnesotans stop feeding deer for recreation.

The group will tell legislators that in their next session they should consider tapping the emergency deer feeding fund to pay for additional CWD testing in wild deer.

"What better use do we have for that [emergency deer feeding] money?" said Johnson.

The Minnesota DNR tested about 55 wild deer last fall for CWD, and all tested negative. Johnson said he would like to see the DNR test 10 times that number this year.

The DNR currently is developing a CWD response plan, and part of it includes testing far more deer next fall, said Mike DonCarlos, DNR wildlife research manager.

"We intend to be more aggressive in our monitoring," he said. "And we're working on a contingency plan in the event of a Wisconsin-type situation here. We want to be ready."

If chronic wasting disease does turn up in Minnesota, "we may not want to do emergency winter deer feeding at all, even during critical winters," Johnson said. "Right now, we support it." But the association might change its position depending on the CWD situation here, Johnson said.

Deer feeding _ both for recreational and for emergency weather-related reasons _ now is suspect because it could contribute to the spread of CWD, Johnson said. Already, the DNR is tightening its regulations prohibiting deer baiting by hunters, because of similar concerns.

The feeding issue is expected to be controversial because of the large numbers of people feeding deer.

"The magnitude of recreational deer feeding is humongous," Johnson said. "But we have to do something to try to prevent CWD from coming to Minnesota, if it's not already here. The quickest thing we can do is ask people not to feed deer."

The deer hunters association and the DNR also are concerned about the more than 500 game farms that are licensed to breed, sell, buy and harvest captive deer and elk.

There are an estimated 11,000 elk _ the largest captive herd in the nation _ and 3,000 deer at those farms. Officials worry that an animal with CWD might be brought into the state and spread the illness to other captive and wild animals. Game farm owners say their animals are tested regularly, and say they are more concerned that wild animals with the disease could spread it to their herds.

Eleven elk that were imported into Minnesota from captive herds infected with CWD were tested last year, and none had the disease. Since then, the state Board of Animal Health has tightened import restrictions and animals from infected herds or areas no longer are allowed into the state. And 167 game farms are enrolled in a voluntary CWD-testing program, said Dr. Kris Petrini of the Board of Animal Health.

About 500 Minnesota elk and deer, most captive, have been tested for CWD over the past 17 months, and none have tested positive, she said.

Though the game farms are fenced, one concern is that the disease could spread nose-to-nose, and some have suggested a double-fencing system would alleviate that concern.

Denny Niess of Rice, Minn., president of the Minnesota Deer Breeders Association, said that idea is a "farce" and that captive animals aren't the problem.

"The problem is not in the captive animals, it's in the wild ones. Our animals are tested and monitored, the wild ones aren't," he said. Some of the captive animals are worth tens of thousands of dollars, Niess said.

"We're the ones concerned about the health of our deer," he added.

Niess agrees with Johnson that a much broader CWD monitoring program needs to be done on the wild deer herd to determine if the disease is present in Minnesota.

Concern over CWD was responsible for killing legislation this session that would have allowed captive deer and elk to be shot at big-game shooting preserves in Minnesota, Niess said. He and other game farm owners have pushed for such legislation for the past few years, without success.

_ Doug Smith is at dsmith@startribune.com.

For more information

- The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has produced a pamphlet on chronic wasting disease. For a copy or more information on the MDHA, call 1-800-450-3337.

- The Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs also have informaton on chronic wasting disease on their websites. See www.dnr.state.mn.us or www.dnr.state.wi.us.

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