by ZACH KAYSER
Winona area deer hunters are waiting to see how far chronic wasting disease spread last year during the human pandemic, even as the state decides whether to crack down on CWD transmission from deer farms.
CWD is a transmissible neurodegenerative condition that can gradually destroy brain function in deer. There are no treatments or cures for the disease, which is always terminal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has not made the jump to humans but research indicates it poses a risk to non-human primates who are exposed to the prions (a type of protein) that cause the disease.
For months this winter, the Winona County Board dithered on whether to allow the Department of Natural Resources to contract culling teams to reduce the spread of CWD by thinning wild whitetail deer herds on county-owned property. Opponents claimed that the culling was not fair, since it used methods not available to amateur hunters and possibly drew deer from adjacent private properties onto public land to be shot. By the time April rolled around, the Board’s hemming and hawing had made the question a moot point since the DNR’s time schedule for the cull had already elapsed. At one point during the long debate, John Zanmiller of the Bluffland Whitetails Association offered to meet with the County Board in order to inform them on the CWD issue.
Zanmiller said as of late May, that proposed meeting had not yet occurred.
“I actually had conversations with the DNR about getting there sooner rather than later to talk about the issue of sharpshooters,” Zanmiller said.
Zanmiller said he still hoped to meet with the County Board sometime in the next few months, but the issue had been put on the back burner by revelations from Beltrami County.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health said on May 25, more than a dozen animals in a farmed herd had tested positive for CWD. Some of the deer on the unnamed Beltrami County farm had been moved there from a farm in Winona County, which had been quarantined in October of last year. Asked whether it was possible an outbreak of similar magnitude could occur in Winona County, Zanmiller said, “We really don’t know.” Failure to institute a deterrent could lead to more cases like Beltrami County, he said.
“Nobody knew that this guy up in Beltrami was dropping dead deer on county property,” Zanmiller said. “Without enhanced surveillance and enforcement, it’s likely we’ll find more bad actors like this.”
Perry Fitch is liaison between the Bluff Country chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the state-level organization. He described the DNR culling as a necessary evil, and said the chapter was evenly split amongst those in favor and those against.
“It’s not exactly what we’d like to see, but we don’t want to see CWD spreading either,” he said.
The DNR’s outreach effort on CWD had gone dark during the pandemic, Fitch said. “The DNR’s trying, but they haven’t educated anybody in the last year,” he said. “I haven’t seen any publications or seminars or anything.”
Fitch said CWD testing during the hunting season this fall — largely deferred during the pandemic — would orient efforts to combat the disease. He was encouraged by legislation moving through the state government aimed at curbing CWD. The MDHA advocates for measures that would ban any new deer farms as well as create a voluntary buyout program to shut down existing farms. Furthermore, the MDHA proposes a ban on interstate transportation of deer parts created from farmed deer.