by CHRIS ROGERS
As far as anyone knows, chronic wasting disease (CWD) has not yet reached wild deer herds in Winona, Trempealeau, and Buffalo counties, but it has gotten very close. A wild deer tested positive for CWD this April in far western Eau Claire County, Wis., just several miles north of Buffalo County. Last fall, there was an outbreak of the disease among captive deer at a Winona County farm. Meanwhile, outside Lanesboro, numerous wild deer have been infected.
CWD attacks the brains of infected cervids, a family of animals that includes deer and elk. It is always fatal. The disease can remain latent inside infected animals for years before they show symptoms. Scientists believe the disease is still contagious during this latent period. CWD is thought to be caused by malformed proteins called prions and spread through bodily fluids such as saliva, urine, feces, and blood. Outside infected animals, in the soil or on surfaces, prions can remain contagious for years and are difficult to destroy. It is unknown whether CWD could affect humans, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends that hunters in CWD-affected areas “strongly consider” having animals tested for CWD before eating venison.
So what are the authorities doing about CWD?
Slowing the spread
CWD was found for the first time in Minnesota in 2002 at an elk farm in Aitkin County. To date, outbreaks have been detected at seven elk and deer farms across Minnesota, and numerous wild deer have been found with the disease in Fillmore and Olmsted counties. In Wisconsin, CWD is widespread. Twenty farms and private game preserves have had outbreaks, and infected wild deer have been found in 25 different counties. Between Madison and La Crosse, the disease is endemic, with hundreds of wild deer testing positive. Buffalo County had been relatively insulated from the disease until a sick deer was found with CWD this spring a few miles north of Mondovi. CWD is slowly spreading, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Minnesota and Wisconsin’s anti-CWD efforts are focused on slowing that spread by quarantining infected deer and elk farms for years, maintaining tall fences at quarantined farms to make sure wild deer cannot enter and get infected, restricting the movement of deer carcasses from CWD-affected areas, and banning deer baiting and deer feeding in parts of the state, which is believed to increase the risk of CWD transmission by attracting many deer to the same food source.
Minnesota can slow the spread of CWD, but it cannot contain the disease forever, Minnesota DNR Wildlife Research Manager Lou Cornicelli said this spring.
“It seems to me that the disease is spreading,” Minnesota Board of Animal Health (BAH) Assistant Director Linda Glaser stated. “Whatever strategies we have to prevent it aren’t effective, and we have a disease that’s spreading and we don’t know a whole lot about it. That is pretty chagrining in the big picture.”
Minn. report criticizes deer farm regulators
In a report this spring, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor critiqued the BAH for lax regulation of deer and elk farms. In Minnesota, the DNR is responsible for wild deer, and the BAH governs cervid farms. The auditor’s report noted that, according to the Star Tribune, the fence around the now-quarantined Winona County deer farm was sagging lower than the required height for years, yet the farm had managed to pass annual inspections without any note of the drooping fence. The low fence raised the possibility that wild deer could have jumped into the contaminated enclosure and jumped out again. The DNR officials were optimistic that, because no wild deer have been found with CWD in Winona County yet, the disease did not spread beyond the farm. Regardless, the legislative auditor found the oversight in BAH inspections concerning.
In an interview this spring, Glaser contradicted the Star Tribune report, saying that the fence only recently started sagging after a tree fell on it. However, the legislative auditor cited BAH leaders as giving a different story: that “perhaps inspectors had received mixed messages regarding how to enforce fence-height requirements.”
“Regardless of the cause,” the auditors’ report continued, “the situation calls into question the accuracy of the inspection reports in BAH’s database and the integrity of its inspection process in general.” The auditors concluded that “… the Winona fencing situation suggests a failure to act on the part of board staff …”
When the auditors analyzed broader trends in BAH deer farm enforcement across the state, they found that when BAH inspectors find a violation, they don’t always issue a warning and rarely issue fines. BAH needs to fully enforce the law to protect Minnesota cervids, the auditors wrote. “Given the lack of enforcement with respect to fencing on the CWD-positive farm in Winona County, BAH administrators may wish to retrain field staff or otherwise clarify expectations regarding enforcement. The board should also develop ways to routinely monitor field staff performance,” the audit recommended.
“Certainly we’re taking their recommendations to heart and making changes based on the recommendations they made and trying to get to that as quickly as we can,” Glaser said of the audit report’s criticisms. The auditors did note that Glaser, who took over the deer and elk program in 2017, is, by many accounts, doing a better job than her predecessor. In a interview this week, Glaser said that she has launched new efforts to educate cervid farmers about regulations and document violations. According to Glaser, BAH staff sent letters to every cervid farm in Minnesota this year, reminding them of the fence height requirements. Glaser’s office did not meet its own goal to inspect all of those fences by July 1, but inspectors will get to them by the end of the year as part of annual inspections, she stated.
Can state agencies work together on CWD?
The auditor’s report described BAH and the DNR as having a “strained relationship,” and that tension and poor communication between the agencies may get in the way of containing CWD. DNR staff said that BAH staff have dragged their feet in turning over information about CWD outbreaks at cervid farms. Conversely, BAH staff said they are concerned about DNR staff releasing nonpublic information about farms where outbreaks occur. Under current state laws, the location, address, and name of a farmer and farm where a disease outbreak occurs is not public information, but that information is vital to the DNR’s efforts to keep an eye on wild deer populations outside CWD-positive farms. Agency leaders signed an agreement this spring in which the DNR promises not to release nonpublic information. However, the audit recommended the DNR and BAH create a formal agreement spelling out what information should be shared when a CWD outbreak is found or when farmed deer escape and how quickly that information should be shared. The two agencies have not yet done that. Glaser said the agencies are still working on setting up their first meeting to discuss the issue.
“I think it’s important that we work together because we have a shared desire to not have CWD, whether it’s within a captive facility or outside the fence,” Cornicelli said. “Nobody wants to be saddled with a lifetime of prion infections,” he added.
Wis. steps up deer farm rules, local CWD testing
In its efforts to combat CWD, Wisconsin authorities are creating new rules for cervid farms and hunters. The movement of infected deer carcasses is one way CWD can spread, and a newly created rule bans hunters from transporting deer carcasses out of CWD-affected counties in Wisconsin. Similarly, Governor Scott Walker has directed the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to restrict the movement of live captive deer away from farms in CWD-affected areas. The DATCP governs cervid farms in Wisconsin; if its board agrees next month to move forward, the rule could be enacted by next April. Meanwhile, the state is also developing a rule that would require deer farms to install more secure fencing.
During deer season, the Wisconsin DNR offers free CWD testing of harvested deer, and this year the agency will be increasing its testing efforts near Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. Last year, hunters — and motorists who struck deer and farmers who culled them — submitted 47 samples from Trempealeau County and 16 from Buffalo County — all negative. “This will be our first concerted effort in those two counties this fall,” DNR Wildlife Health Section Chief Tami Ryan stated. Last year, there were not any CWD sampling stations in Buffalo or Trempealeau counties. Ryan said that the agency may add some this year. The DNR is issuing special hunting permits in northern Buffalo County and western Eau Claire County for the purpose of CWD sampling within a 10-mile radius of the infected deer found this spring.
Asked whether she expects CWD will eventually spread to all parts of Wisconsin, Ryan responded, “We hope not.” She added, “We’re still in the fight.”
Deer movement study could inform CWD prevention
Humans may accidentally transport infected deer, but wild deer are capable of spreading the disease with their own four legs, as well. Right now, the Minnesota DNR is in the middle of an in-depth study into how far wild deer in Southeast Minnesota travel, with the hopes that it could inform the agency’s containment efforts.
“We want to get an idea of the possibility of where these animals are moving from this part of Minnesota, how far they’re moving, and what implications that might have for the spread of CWD,” DNR Wildlife Health Program Research Scientist Chris Jennelle explained.
Of the 139 animals DNR researchers captured and attached GPS collars, 87 are still alive with functioning GPS units. It is too early to draw many conclusions, Jennelle said, but he reported that only a few deer travelled very far this spring. One juvenile female, however, travelled over 70 miles from outside Forestville State Park to Cannon Falls, Minn.
“We had one animal move a long way,” Cornicelli said of the initial results. It could be a fluke. Fall is a bigger migration period for deer, and the results from monitoring this fall should tell the DNR more about how deer are moving in Southeast Minnesota, Cornicelli stated.
Currently, some of the DNR’s anti-CWD regulations only apply to CWD-affected counties and immediately neighboring counties. Depending on how far the average deer travels, maybe the DNR needs to expand the geographic area of its CWD-containment efforts, Cornicelli suggested. “If one deer goes 70 miles, does that mean your zone needs to be 70 miles? Maybe, maybe not. But if half your deer disperse 70 miles in either direction, your zone probably isn’t big enough,” he stated.
What can you do?
Citizens can help prevent the spread of CWD by following state rules, reporting sick deer, and getting deer they kill sampled for CWD.
The symptoms of CWD include stumbling, drooling, drooping ears, severe weight loss, and a lack of fear of humans. In Minnesota, citizens who see sick deer should call the DNR information center at 1-888-646-6367. In Wisconsin, citizens should report sick deer to local wildlife biologist Mark Rasmussen at 608-685-6222 or by calling the after-hours hotline, 1-800-847-9367. The Wisconsin DNR discovered CWD in Eau Claire County because a citizen reported a sick deer.
Hunters can help authorities keep tabs on CWD by submitting CWD samples from harvested deer this fall. Keep reading the Winona Post and check the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR websites for more information on testing stations. In Wisconsin, citizens can also call local wildlife biologists to submit samples.
Hunters can also help prevent the spread of CWD by not transporting deer carcasses out of the CWD-affected areas, including Buffalo and Trempealeau counties and Minnesota’s permit area 603, which includes most of Fillmore County.
Deer baiting is banned statewide in Minnesota, and in Southeast Minnesota, the DNR has banned deer feeding and deer attractants, such as bottled estrus. Feeding and attractants cause deer to congregate and increase the risk of disease transfer, according to the Minnesota DNR. Deer baiting and feeding is also prohibited in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties.
For more information visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/cwd/index.html and dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/regulations.html.