Winona city staff culled the deer at the city’s Prairie Island Deer Park last week.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Carrying out a decision made by the City Council, last week Winona city staff killed the deer kept at the Prairie Island Deer Park so they could be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD). A Facebook post from local resident Scott Nation criticizing the culling of the deer and the manner of their death drew hundreds of responses. Nation said he and his son came to the park and were surprised to hear gunshots. Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson confirmed the deer were shot by a city police officer. He said the deer were treated humanely and professionally by the same city staff who cared for the animals for years.
CWD is the reason the deer park was closed and the reason the remaining deer at the park were killed. It is an always-fatal brain disease that affects deer, moose, and elk that spreads through physical contact among animals, bodily fluids, and carcasses. Infected animals may spread the disease for years before they show any symptoms. CWD is widespread in Central Wisconsin, an outbreak occurred near Preston, Minn., several years ago, and an infection was discovered at a Cedar Valley deer farm in 2017. This year, the first cases in wild deer were found in Winona County, near Pickwick and Cedar Valley.
In an admittedly contentious decision, the City Council voted in August to close the deer park. Council members Paul Schollmeier and Pam Eyden argued it is only a matter of time before CWD reaches the deer park. If the park were infected, the land would have to be quarantined for five years — leaving it unusable as a city park. They also cited expert’s warnings about the potential for CWD to someday infect humans. A similar disease, Mad Cow Disease, is believed to have spread from cows to humans through infected beef in England. Schollmeier and Eyden argued that waiting for CWD to reach the park posed a human health risk. The council agreed to close the park, a decision council members knew would require the deer at the park to be culled and tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD).
It is necessary to kill deer to test them for CWD because, according to state officials, the only reliable tests for CWD require taking lymph node samples from dead animals. Currently, there are not reliable blood tests for CWD, officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and University of Minnesota have stated. University experts are pursuing research to develop faster, more convenient tests.
Under state regulations, if the deer are found to have been CWD-positive, the city will have to quarantine the deer park for five years to prevent the spread of CWD from the contaminated enclosure.
“Sad, sad, sad day,” Nation wrote in a Facebook post last Thursday morning. “Took my kid out to see the deer in the deer park like we do a lot on these chilly mornings. As we got up to the deer park, there was a huge front end loader sitting there running with three trucks parked there … All of a sudden we heard boom, boom, boom, boom.” Nation claimed city staff acted rudely. As of press time, the post had been shared 353 times and had 405 comments.
Nelson said Nation’s claims about city staff acting rudely were false. “The crew was acting professionally,” he stated. “It was a somber time for them. They had been feeding and caring for these deer for 20-some years in some cases.” He added, “They did it in a safe and discrete way … It’s unfortunate that this gentlemen and his son stayed on site. I’m not sure why they didn’t leave.”
Asked if city staff blocked off the deer park area before culling the animals, Nelson responded, “No, the area itself is fenced off, and putting the deer down was done inside the fenced area. But we didn’t close off the public road. It wasn’t deemed as necessary. They did it in a safe way and quickly and what we thought was going to be a discrete way of doing it.”
Back in August, council member Eileen Moeller asked Nelson if the deer would be euthanized. At the time, he did not give a clear answer. “If it’s done humanely, that’s my concern,” Moeller said.
Nelson stated that the culling was done in accordance with state regulations and representatives from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health — the agency that regulates captive deer farms and parks — were present to oversee the operation and collect samples for CWD testing. He said the carcasses were burned, which he described as being in-line with state rules for disposing of potentially CWD-infected animals.
If CWD is not discovered in the culled animals, the park and recreation department can put the land to a different use, Nelson stated. For now, the deer park will remain fenced off. “We’ll just leave it locked up until we get the results back,” he said. The City Council has not yet made a decision on how to use the land in the future.