by CHRIS ROGERS
When Winona first put deer in a pen on Prairie Island in 1961, deer parks were all the rage. Arcadia, Galesville, and Blair all had deer parks, and local newspapers ran updates when a doe was expecting fawns or when a mean buck had to be de-horned. They even published progress reports on the animals’ weight gain. When two brothers allegedly slaughtered one of the park’s deer and turned the rest loose in 1965, it was a high crime. Police tracked them down after finding blood in the trunk of a car. The deer park was established by the Izaak Walton League, and three years in, the Winona Daily News proclaimed it was “one of Winona’s major tourist attractions. Families come from all over Southern Minnesota regularly to show children the tame deer and use the free picnic grounds.”
Nowadays, some people have a different reaction, namely, wondering why deer are kept inside a fence. “Are the deer there so the public can look at them?” City Council member Michelle Alexander asked at a meeting earlier this month. It was an honest question.
At that April 2 meeting, Winona city staff proposed eliminating the Prairie Island Deer Park and replacing it with mountain bike trails. A divided City Council postponed a decision.
Deer park at the crossroads
“We’re at a potential crossroads to make some decisions about the deer park,” Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson told the council. In recent years, the deer park has primarily been populated through the herd’s own reproduction, but that has narrowed the gene pool and the deer started having trouble raising their young, Nelson explained. So, a few years ago, the city purchased three deer from a nearby deer farm — where captive deer are raised as livestock — to correct its inbreeding problem. In an unlucky turn of events, chronic wasting disease (CWD) was later discovered at that farm. Out of fear that they may have carried CWD to Prairie Island, the three new deer were euthanized and tested this winter. They did not have CWD, but now the deer park has just three deer remaining. If the city intends to continue the herd, it will need to bring in more deer. Nelson stated that the deer park facilities have upcoming maintenance needs, too. Additionally, he said, “There are some issues out at the park with the behavior of people. We’ll leave it at that.”
Furthermore, Nelson told the council that it was only a matter of time before CWD spread to Winona and the deer park. CWD is an epidemic among North American deer. It is widespread in Iowa and Wisconsin, and there have been outbreaks near Preston, Minn., and in North-Central Minnesota. The recent deer farm outbreak was the first case of CWD in Winona County. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official said the state can slow but not stop the advance of the deadly disease across Minnesota.
Because it is nearly impossible to disinfect areas contaminated by CWD, infected deer farms or deer parks must go through an extreme quarantine procedure. Asked by Alexander whether the city needed to make a decision right away on the future of the deer park, Nelson responded, “The only urgency I see at this point is if chronic wasting disease does get here and is found at the park, then that area has to be quarantined for a long time and not even used by humans.” The city would need to maintain the fence around the enclosure and, essentially, not use the area for anything for five years.
One option for the city to be sure it avoids a long-term quarantine would be to put down the remaining deer now, city officials noted.
Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl said that if the deer park were decommissioned, one potential use for the site would be to construct beginner mountain bike trails or a pump track at the site. There are already some hiking trails in the woods near the deer park.
Council leaning toward keeping park
“I will probably be the loudest and angriest to try to keep that park in any capacity,” City Council member Gerry Krage told city staff and his colleagues. Krage took issue with Nelson’s description of the risk of CWD reaching the park. “CWD may come here, and then again it may not,” Krage stated. “And if does, it’s five years [of quarantine]. Five years from a park perspective, from what we look at, is very short,” he said.
As Krage staked out his position, he and the other council members debated how valuable it was for citizens and visitors to be able see captive deer. “When I go outside, the deer are there,” Alexander said. “I enjoy seeing wildlife in the wild,” she stated, arguing that hiking and biking trails could be just as big of a draw as the deer park is now.
Some years, the deer park has been home to bucks with magnificent racks, Krage pointed out. “Some of us hunt all the time, and it’s rare that you get to see a buck like that,” he said. The chance for people, especially children, to have such an up-close-and-personal look at those animals is unique, Krage argued. “It’s a special place,” he said.
“I respect Gerry’s opinion; I just think they belong in the wild,” council member Paul Schollmeier said. “One of my first, very first memories of Winona … was the deer park. So I have fond memories of it, but I think these are different times, and I don’t necessarily see a need for it. And I do think the deer should be free to roam. There are plenty of opportunities to see deer in the wild.”
“If I were a deer, I’d rather be in that park especially in the month of December,” council member George Borzyskowski stated. “Not everybody has that opportunity to see that wildlife,” he added. Council member Al Thurley talked about how his son and his grandson have enjoyed seeing deer at the park. “To me, that would still be a draw,” he said. “I think the deer park has real value,” council member Pam Eyden stated.
Though there was no vote or formal decision at the meeting, four of the seven council members voiced support for keeping the deer park, while only Alexander and Schollmeier were open to closing it.
Mayor Mark Peterson did not come down on one side or the other. He said he enjoyed the deer park, and wanted to wait for the city’s new comprehensive parks plan to be finished at the end of this year before making a decision on the deer park’s fate.
That is what the city leaders ultimately agreed to do. The issue may be discussed again after the completion of the comprehensive parks plan, and in the meantime, city staff will continue maintaining the deer park as usual.
Parks plan public input meeting on April 24
The fate of the deer park and the future of Prairie Island is just one major issue the city plans to tackle in its comprehensive parks plan. That all-encompassing, long-term plan for the parks and recreation system will cover everything from the proposed new senior center to neighborhood park maintenance needs to recreational sports leagues. The city is hosting a meeting to seek public input on all of those topics and more this coming Tuesday, April 24, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the council chambers on the third floor of city hall, 207 Lafayette Street.