CWD testing 2019

File photo

DNR staff collected tissue samples from a harvested deer for CWD testing in 2019.



After a hiatus during the peak of the pandemic last fall, testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD) is once again mandatory in most of Southeast Minnesota for this weekend’s deer season opener. Free testing is also available to hunters throughout the season. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is offering a late CWD hunt over the holidays to help manage the disease, and it reinstated bag limits in response to hunter feedback.

CWD is an always-fatal disease that affects deer and elk and is spread through contact, bodily fluids, and carcasses. It’s still very rare in wild deer in Minnesota, with just 115 cases detected since 2002, but it is growing, though the disease has proliferated in other parts of the country, and in some areas of Wisconsin more than half of all bucks are infected. Twenty infected deer have been found in Winona County to date, mostly near Cedar Valley, Pickwick, and Wilson.

Hunters have a crucial role to play in helping keep the disease rare by controlling deer populations, experts say. “Hunting, hunting, hunting,” University of Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach Co-Director Peter Larsen said. “It’s so important that we keep hunting pressure up.” It’s been demonstrated elsewhere in the U.S., when hunting pressure goes down, CWD can go up, Larsen told the Winona County Board earlier this fall.

In order to help track how the disease is spreading, the DNR requires hunters to submit samples from harvested deer during this weekend’s opener, as well as the opening weekend for the B season, Nov. 20-21. “Last year, obviously due to COVID restrictions, it was all voluntarily and self-service sampling stations,” Acting DNR Big Game Coordinator Todd Froberg said. “This year, in all those [CWD] zones, it’s mandatory testing on opening weekend.”

Staffed sampling stations, where DNR employees will be onsite to remove lymph nodes from harvested deer for testing, will be available on opening weekend, as well as some self-service stations, where hunters can drop off deer’s lymph nodes or heads for testing.

It is also important for hunters to know what zone they harvest deer from. A CWD “management zone” includes permit areas 645, 646, 648, and 649 east and south of St. Charles, Altura, and Minneiska. A CWD “control zone” includes permit areas 344 and 343, the area north of St. Charles and west of Altura. Because infected carcasses can spread CWD, the DNR has a ban on moving carcasses in and out of either of these zones until the animal received a “not detected” result from a CWD test, and the agency is providing dumpsters for the safe disposal of deer remains.

In the management zone, local staffed sampling stations include the Winona Fleet Farm at 920 East Highway 61, Wilson Truck and Trailer Repair at 29622 County Road 12, the Winona County Fairgrounds at 518 West Sixth Street in St. Charles, Pam’s Corner Convenience at 107 Highway 16 in Rushford, and the La Crescent Joint Public Works Facility at 450 South Chestnut Street. The stations are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dumpsters are available at the Winona Fleet Farm, Wilson Truck and Trailer Repair, the Winona County Fairgrounds, the Rushford DNR shop at 305 Industrial Drive, and the La Crescent public works facility.

In the control zone, stations include the Whitewater WMA Wildlife Office at 15035 Highway 74 in Altura, and the Kreofsky Do It Best Building at 865 Enterprise Drive Southwest in Plainview. Dumpsters are available at both locations.

Hunters also have the option to get free CWD testing throughout the season, either at a self-service sampling station or from a participating taxidermist, which gives hunters the option of getting deer tested for CWD while preserving them for a mount. State officials recommend getting deer tested for CWD before eating the venison. Although no cases of CWD have ever been found in humans, health officials caution against eating infected meat, because of studies showing the disease can spread to monkeys and similarities between CWD and mad cow disease, which is believed to have spread to humans through beef.

The free testing is a good deal for hunters, Froberg said. “To have all the head boxes out and the sample submissions and paying staff to collect all the samples, it’s a big undertaking. For a hunter to be able to do it for free, I think it’s a great option,” he said.

As for what to do with deer while awaiting results, Froberg advised, “I think the biggest thing is making a plan for the upcoming season. Don’t wait until you shoot your deal and then go, oh, what do I do?” Personally, Froberg said, “I process my own deer, and then I put it in my freezer and wait for my results.” 

Harvest limits have long been relaxed in CWD zones in order to help manage the disease since lower population density leads to less transmission. However, this year the DNR reinstated bag limits in response to hunter feedback. Previously, there was no limit on antler-less deer in the CWD management zone; this year, there is a five-deer bag limit. With the vast majority of hunters shooting an average of 1.2 deer per year, the unlimited bag limit was not having a big impact on populations, but hunters in Southeast Minnesota were concerned that it could, Froberg explained.

In the CWD management zone, disease management permits for anter-less deer are available for $2.50, there are no antler point restrictions, cross-tagging bucks is allowed, and hunters may take one buck each during the archery, firearm, and muzzleloader seasons. 

In the control zone, hunters are limited to one buck per year, but antler point restrictions are waived and cross-tagging bucks is allowed, according to the DNR.

To help suppress CWD, late hunts will be held in permit areas 343, 605, 643, 645, 646, 647, 648, 649, and 655 on December 17-19 and December 31 through January 2, 2022.

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