Even as Winona County battles COVID-19, the County Board is hesitating to cooperate with a state effort to fight chronic wasting disease (CWD).
The board voted unanimously to table, until their next meeting on March 9, whether to allow a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) deer culling. The vote frustrates CWD mitigation that DNR hoped to conduct at the county-owned property known as Stone Point Park. DNR culling proceeded on private land elsewhere in the county.
CWD is a transmissible neurodegenerative condition that can gradually destroy brain function in deer. There are no treatments or cures for the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has not yet 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.
”These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people,” the CDC website says. “Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”
Winona County is one of six counties in Minnesota where CWD-positive deer have been identified. As the DNR had previously told the County Board, the agency is monitoring the persistent spread of CWD in areas of concern like Winona County. Last year, the county allowed the DNR to attempt to thin the deer herd at Stone Point Park in an effort to protect the broader deer population from CWD. This year, though, skepticism on the County Board made the process of approving the cull more complicated.
The discussion on Tuesday came about when Commissioner Steve Jacob removed the deer-culling item from the consent agenda, and put it on the regular agenda. By pulling the item, he was taking it off a list of uncontroversial things the board normally approves out of hand and precipitating a debate.
In Jacob’s mind, the DNR using tax dollars to pay people to cull deer was unfair to the amateur hunters who hunt deer as a pastime. Public hunting is not allowed at Stone Point Park, a former landfill.
“It feels like a double standard from this board to say, ‘the public can’t use that land for hunting, but we’re going to grant the DNR to go out there and endanger the people who could potentially be using the park.’” Jacob said. “I don’t think it’s a good fit.”
If the culling was to go forward, the DNR would use harvester teams from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services, or USDA APHIS Wildlife Services. That department is tasked with preventing and reducing conflict between humans and animals — in this case, the whitetail deer.
If the Winona County program is in line with the typical government deer culling, the USDA shooters would go at night, use night vision and lay down bait all of which are generally illegal for amateur hunters in Minnesota. An article for Outdoor Life from a journalist embedded with a USDA culler group on Long Island described the team as using specially modified .243 caliber hunting rifles with sound suppressors attached, which require special permission from the government for an individual to possess. The article also said the deer the team shot tended to be young ones who fell for the bait, not the older, more wary deer prized by hunters.
The County Board didn’t ask him any questions at the meeting Tuesday, but Todd Froberg is the DNR official who until now has been fruitlessly trying to make the cull happen this year. In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting but after a meeting earlier in February where the board also debated the issue, Froberg said he would like to make it clear to commissioners that the amateur hunters were not missing out on anything by not being included in the cull.
“This has nothing to do with hunting,” Froberg said. “We’re not trying to take recreation opportunities away; we’re specifically trying to mitigate disease. We have no illusion that this is some type of sport …. It’s not hunting. It’s shooting at night and over bait with specialized equipment.”
Froberg went on to say that CWD is a frequency-dependent disease, so reducing the number of deer who could potentially transmit the disease will help prevent CWD itself. As a deer hunter, he said he understood the contention over deer culls but it was important to prevent the sort of situation where CWD overruns the population, such as in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin did [mitigation efforts], but they gave up after a few years because of public pressure,” Froberg said. “And since then, disease rates have exponentially gone up.”
As Froberg included in his Feb. 9 presentation to the board, the DNR does in fact give out permits to private landowners to take deer outside the regular firearms season as part of the CWD mitigation efforts.
The next public Winona County Board meeting is March 9 at 9 a.m. Interested parties may attend either in person at the County Office Building, Conference Room 138 A&B, 202 West Third Street, or may attend online at https://meetings.ringcentral.com/join?jid=1497359371.