Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Dealing with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

Drive across Minnesota and you’ll pass through communities you may have never heard of: Castle Danger, Esko, Tamarack, Barrows, Swanville, Westport, Long Beach, Cyrus, Johnson, Beardsley. Doing so, you’ll also cross a remarkably diverse landscape: the rocky hills rising from Lake Superior’s stormy shores, the endless peat bogs and swamps west of Duluth, the magical mix of waters and forests in the lake country, the productive transition from forest to prairie and then the endless farm fields that stretch to the Dakotas. Nearly all Minnesotans know just bits and pieces of this landscape; our hometowns, lake cabins and the places where we’ve worked, visited relatives or gone on vacation.

Minnesota is a big place. I thought about this as I drove across the state and back again last weekend. Driving conditions were good. Some of the drive was in daylight and some was in the dark. Fortunately, I saw very few deer; less than a dozen in over 700 miles of highway. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time going here and there across the state. Since the mid-Eighties, only in recent years have I seen so few whitetails.

Happy am I not to be one of those chosen to serve on the DNR’s new statewide deer advisory committee. There are multiple reasons why the state presently has fewer deer than it used to. Start with an aggressive approach to hunter harvest designed to get control over a burgeoning deer herd. Add back-to-back snowy winters in the north, the widespread loss of CRP acres in the south and you have a recipe for less deer. So far, the recovery has been slow and, at least according to some hunters, hindered by harvest policies that remain more aggressive than they ought to be.

The statewide deer plan, a first for Minnesota, was a recommendation from a legislative audit of the DNR’s deer management that occurred last year. Having a plan will give the agency some operational guideposts for managing deer and communicating its deer management objectives with the public. In addition to the aforementioned advisory committee, the DNR plans to seek public comment at regional meetings, through online questionnaires and from written comments.

The committee members are in for a long haul. They’ve signed up for a term lasting 12-14 months, with the first meeting Dec. 13. Meetings will be held monthly or as needed. The role of this citizen’s group is purely advisory; the DNR will draft the final plan.

From personal experience on similar committees, I’d expect the first two or three meetings to be mostly informational as the agency’s staff brings the committee up to speed on Minnesota deer management. Along the way, informal ground rules will be developed. Certain topics, perhaps wolf management and Native American treaty rights, will be largely off limits, because they are beyond the scope of deer management or state control. In the course of the meetings, the perspectives of various committee members will begin to emerge. I suspect there will be some variance in members’ views.

Then the hard work will begin. Certainly, part of the discussion will revolve around how many deer are the right amount statewide and regionally, the answer to which can be found in the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (in other words, it’s a matter of collective opinion as much as science). But there will be hard questions as well regarding habitat and habitat management with input, perhaps not favorable to deer hunters, from the agriculture, forestry and preservationist representatives. Then deer numbers will have to be balanced with management of moose and perhaps elk, again with perspectives deer hunters may not care for.

Another point of controversy may be how deer managers approach the issues of baiting, feeding and creating food plots for deer. In terms of food plots, the horse is long out of the barn, with landowners across the state now gardening for deer. Baiting deer is not allowed during the hunting season, but certainly occurs both legally prior to the season and illegally during the season. Deer feeding ranges from backyard treats to major operations during snowy winters. I suspect all of these methods of attracting whitetails to unnatural feeding sites deserves serious scrutiny.

Why? Because during the next 10 years, which will be the life of this plan, Chronic Wasting Disease may emerge as a major health issue for Minnesota whitetails and those who hunt them. CWD is spreading rapidly in neighboring Wisconsin, where a hyper-politicized deer management system is doing far too little to monitor the disease in deer or to curb it’s spread. At this point, it may just be a matter of time before we begin seeing more outbreaks in Minnesota. While the always fatal illness isn’t wholly understood, what is known is that it seems more prevalent in situations where deer are congregated, such as in an enclosure or at a feeding site. Since baiting has suddenly become common with northwestern Ontario hunters, it is possible we may see a CWD threat on our northern border, too.

Currently, Minnesota takes aggressive action to cull deer numbers in localized areas where CWD has been found. While doing so may be a bad deal for the hunters in those locations, the intent is to prevent the spread of the disease. So far, this approach seems to work. For sure it works better than the lackadaisical tactics employed in Wisconsin.

While so far CWD has only been found in members of the deer family, the illness is closely related to Mad Cow Disease, which has been transmitted to humans. Even though that hasn’t occurred, this hunter, and many others, wouldn’t risk knowingly eating an infected whitetail. A widespread outbreak of CWD could significantly change deer hunting as we know it.

While the members of the advisory committee will have points of disagreement, we can only hope they will all agree that the outcome of the Minnesota deer plan is to provide for a healthy whitetail herd that provides recreation for a half-million hunters and food for many more Minnesotans. White-tailed deer are a prized and valuable natural resource. Let’s plan to keep them that way.

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