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Serving: MN

CWD: No time for turf battles

arlutz73/Getty Images white-tailed deer
SLOW SPREAD: Chronic wasting disease has been slowly spreading through deer farms in Minnesota. Some cite weak oversight by the state’s board of animal health, which oversees deer farms, for its failure to properly regulate them.
Minnesota agencies must step up the pace to contain chronic wasting disease.

Many of you may recall when bovine tuberculosis resurfaced in Minnesota in 2005, more than three decades after the disease had eradicated in the state’s cattle industry in 1971.

A beef cow near Skime, Minn., sent for routine slaughter in Wisconsin, showed thoracic lesions and tested positive for bovine TB. The discovery prompted more testing, both of cattle and deer in the region. The state decided early on that TB eradication was its goal. Over the next six years, surveillance and testing found bovine TB in 12 cattle operations and 27 free-ranging, white-tailed deer in northwestern Minnesota. Researchers determined that the TB strain, which was found in both cattle and deer in the region, originated from the Southwestern U.S. or Mexico, in livestock shipped north.

Both state agencies the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the Department of Natural Resources — were key in aggressively working to contain and eliminate the disease. MBAH led efforts to eradicate bovine TB by depopulating all infected herds, offering a cattle buyout program and mandating fencing of stored feeds. The DNR started surveillance in free-range white-tailed deer in fall 2005, and found TB-infected deer within a 10-mile radius of infected cattle farms. The agency worked to reduce deer densities with stepped-up hunting and sharpshooting. It expanded the disease management zone to 164 square miles, and it enacted a ban on recreational feeding of wild deer.

The hard work done by agency personnel, farmers and hunters paid off. By 2011, Minnesota regained its TB-free status from USDA. And after the 2012 hunting season, the DNR halted TB sampling of hunter-harvested deer, as that season had marked the third consecutive year that no deer tested positive for bovine TB.

How about CWD?

Now the two state agencies are co-managing how to handle chronic wasting disease, and one wonders if lessons learned with TB are remembered.

The first CWD-positive farmed cervid — an elk — was identified in 2002 in Aitkin County. The first CWD-positive wild deer was found in 2010 in Olmstead County, 2 miles from a CWD-positive elk farm that was identified the year prior. Since then, 115 CWD-positive wild white-tailed deer have been found in Fillmore, Winona, Houston, Dakota, Olmsted and Crow Wing counties. Twelve CWD-positive deer farms have been identified, the latest in Beltrami County.

Yes, CWD incidence in wild deer is low, and we hope it remains so. However, CWD is slowly spreading in farmed deer, and there has been limited effort until recently to depopulate contaminating herds or to curtail animal movement.

In a 2018 report issued by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, MBAH was taken to task for its weak oversight of deer and elk farms, and its failure to regulate them. One example: MBAH failure to determine whether deer and elk producers submitted tissue samples for CWD testing for all deceased animals.

The state shares blame here, too, as Minnesota law, at the time of the report, did not require deer and elk identification tags to be read and recorded when completing an animal inventory. Both MBAH and the DNR were noted to have struggled with communication, and not sharing appropriate information about CWD outbreaks.

Last spring, the Legislature passed a new law that gives both agencies concurrent authority to regulate white-tailed deer farms. Before, only MBAH handled inspections. Now, DNR will participate in those, with a goal of 40 inspections by mid-December. The two agencies must report back to the legislature by Feb. 1 and share how they are working together; share their assessment of ongoing challenges to manage CWD; and offer recommendations for statutory and program changes to help the state better manage the disease.

There are currently 172 white-tailed deer farms in Minnesota with 3,380 animals, according to MBAH.

As was noted during the Sept. 14 House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy committee meeting that focused on the disease, more than $14.3 million has been spent on CWD in Minnesota thus far.

“It’s incomprehensible we are at this point,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, committee chair. “We’ve been dealing with this for five years in the Minnesota House.” He voiced concern about the effectiveness of agency co-management and that things may continue as they have been.

Minnesota in the past has shown effective responses to animal disease outbreaks. Avian influenza is a prime example. Center on the core mission and get it done.

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