As Fillmore County comes to grips with the positive identification of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in the wild whitetail population, state organizations, landowners, game farmers, and hunters are grappling for answers and a clear path forward. On the heels of the findings, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) developed a CWD response plan and a Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee. Several public meetings have been held and the vested interests of those involved have brought both frustration and further questions.
Initially, the deer identified included two bucks harvested approximately four miles west of Lanesboro, November 6 and November 13, in permit area 348. A third deer, harvested in mid-November, was identified five miles north of first two, but within the disease management zone, which is now designated Deer Permit Area 603. The DNR has described the zone as bordered roughly on the northwest by Chatfield, on the northeast by Arendahl township, on the southeast by Canton, and on the southwest by Bristol township.
“This 370-square-mile disease management zone is the area of greatest concern,” said Dr. Lou Cornicelli, DNR Wildlife Research Manager in a press release. “Landowners and hunters will help us conduct our primary control and sampling efforts here so we can act quickly, aggressively and cooperatively to limit and hopefully stop any spread of CWD.”
A large part of the response plan has been intensified hunting. A 16-day special hunt was held December 31 through January 15 and 873 deer were harvested during that time. One deer harvested during the special hunt tested positive for the devastating neurological disease. “The special hunt was designed to assess prevalence across the CWD zone, begin the process of lowering deer densities in the area, and remove infected animals from the population,” said Cornicelli in a statement.
January 16, a ban prohibiting the feeding of wild deer was implemented as part long-term disease management strategy. It included all of Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Olmsted and Winona counties and is in effect until further notice. “The purpose of the ban is to reduce the potential for the disease to spread from deer-to-deer by reducing the number of deer concentration sites. CWD can spread from one deer to another following nose-to-nose contact, contact with saliva or other body fluids. By eliminating deer feeding sites where that easily can occur, the potential for the disease to spread is reduced,” stated the DNR. With a DNR-imposed surveillance goal of sampling 900 deer, roughly 300 landowner permits were issued by the DNR in the permit zone to further reduce herd numbers. Landowner permits expired February 12.
The special hunts yielded a fifth CWD-infected deer, an adult doe, taken near Preston not far from the others. Two additionally harvested deer, also adult does, were taken within a mile of the first two cases and tested positive January 6. An eighth CWD-positive deer was identified by the DNR as shot 5 to 10 miles north, near the area of Bucksnort.
It is expected that contracted federal sharpshooters will be brought into by the DNR before the end of the month to further reduce the herds. The DNR has stated that throughout the next year, the advisory committee will review information and public input, making recommendations for a plan expected by the spring of 2018.
As with any hot-button issue, rumors and finger-pointing by multiple groups have been prevalent and game farmers with the 10-mile radius have fielded concern from hunters amid concerns of their own for their herds. A public meeting, sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association and the Iowa Deer Farmers Association was held Wednesday, February 8, at Potter Auditorium in Chatfield. Advertised as, “The Facts and Fiction About CWD – Living and Hunting in the New Age with CWD,” the event packed more than 240 into the auditorium. Emcee for the evening was Patrick Hogan, Associate Publisher of North American Whitetail magazine. Keynote speakers were Dr. James Kroll, professor emeritus of forest wildlife management at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and Dr. Clifford F. Shipley, attending veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Kroll is well-known as “Dr. Deer”, and is a presence on North American Whitetail Television. He was contracted by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2011 to review Wisconsin DNR procedures and management plans for CWD. Dr. Shipley is an expert on cervid reproduction and health and an active game farmer of mule and whitetail deer and wapiti (elk).
“Thank you for your interest in and concern of our whitetail deer herd. Common goals and effective communication are more important than ever,” stated Hogan in his introduction. “This is a great opportunity to work together.”
Shipley, who worked a bit of comic relief into the palpable tension of the event, indicated his intent to keep his presentation scientific, presenting “facts as we know them.” Shipley clarified CWD as a non-viral, bacterial, or fungal neurological prion disease that is caused by misfolded proteins. Why the proteins are affected remains a mystery, although theory speculation has ranged widely. The disease is resistant to sterilization and it is not fully understood how it is transmitted, but appears lateral, from animal to animal through infected feces, urine, saliva, and muscle or nervous system tissues.
Shipley indicated the disease may have been present all along, unknown to us. “It’s a whole new world for us as disease specialists. We don’t have all the answers yet. We didn’t test, didn’t recognize and didn’t understand biosecurity.” He also pointed out the social habits of herds, related to their habitat, bedding, groups, behavior, and migration, as well as transmission of the disease by scavenger animal or man (disposal of carcasses, handling and transportation of infectious material) being potential factors. Origin theories include a jump from species or spontaneous event from genetics, another mis-folded protein, or other source.
“We need accurate live animal tests,” stated Shipley. “I think we’re close.” Currently, the state of Texas utilizes a live rectal biopsy test for farmed cervids, but this is not an approved standard in Minnesota or Iowa. Both Minnesota and Iowa game farms have practiced long-term testing and reporting their herds for the disease. However, these tests are post-mordem. Vaccination trials are also ongoing. “There’s a genetic solution, but nature is very unkind,” added Shipley, who also stressed that the disease does not appear to affect domestic livestock or humans. There are United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service regulations in place. “It’s worked very well and it’s a good program.”
“If you fall into hysteria and don’t work together, we will allow organizations to peck at us and pull us apart,” cautioned Shipley.
Kroll came out swinging early in his presentation, asking whether anyone in attendance wanted to see deer extinct and hunting gone forever. Making his point, he introduced his professional background and experience. “I’ve lived and worked with these animals every day for the last 50 years. I’m not gonna suffer fools at a meeting like this. Whitetail deer are the most managed and mismanaged species.”
In 2012, Kroll put forth his White Paper report to the Wisconsin Deer Trustee Committee, following his team’s evaluation of deer management in the state. It favors the theory that CWD is not density dependent, but rather frequency dependent. “No one has stepped forward and asserted that what we found wasn’t true,” he stated. “You can eradicate them all day long. You’re still going to have CWD.”
Kroll asserted that the discovery of CWD on the heels of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease, triggered a panic in eradication responses and that funding for research was equally as abundant. He also touched on the reports that the spread of CWD is increasing exponentially. According to Kroll, the data presented is relative to details not specifically indicated, such as the infection rate for an entire statewide population, rather than the actual percentage of infection in the management areas as tested. “There’s a bias in CWD science. A vast majority of samples have come from inside the CWD zone. We have no idea who came up with the number, but boy did it go off in the press.”
Kroll believes that studying and targeting specific manipulations within herd demographics has has merit in the fight against CWD. Deer populations are dwindling; not because of CWD, but because of mismanagement. “There’s a potential genetic solution to this; there are resistant individuals out there. Nature will find a way. Deer will find a way,” said Kroll.
Instead of intensive hunting, Kroll believes a more passive, wildfire-fighting model is needed: keep monitoring and sampling and look for the sparks. Involving all of us together is the solution to it. We’ve spent hundreds of millions and we still don’t know.” He urged the public to volunteer and help on research projects and to be on the lookout. “Become citizen scientists. Help build trust between each other. Educate yourself.”
With the meeting leaning towards a third hour, more than a dozen in attendance lined up to ask questions of Kroll and Shipley. They included related diseases, funding for research, the current approach by the DNR, prion structure, genetics, game farms, conservation, hunting, deer attractants, best practices for handling, debunking information and finding good research and came from hunters, landowners, researchers, farmers, conservationists, industry business owners, and more.
One item that was brought up on several occasions is an “us and them” mentality; DNR versus eradication skeptics, hunters versus game farmers. “I do not want you to go away thinking the DNR is a bunch of fools. They’re not. I assume they’re doing what they think is best. If you want a circle the wagon mentality, the approach you need to be using is what Wisconsin is doing now. Eradication has never worked,” said Kroll.
One speaker indicated that game farm owners could be a potential asset to the plan, much like farmers did with similar Scrapie eradication in sheep and goats. “We need to work together,” echoed Shipley. “Everybody – the DNR, farmers, animal health, landowners – everybody has skin in the game.”
“We need a process to get all together,” added Kroll. “To put the stakeholders together, build trust one to one. There’s a spark; jump on it aggressively. Come up with a local plan, definable goals, and jump on it. It’s time to get on it and see what the problem is.”
Those wanting more about the disease can find answers at www.cwdinfo.org. More information regarding the DNR management plan can be found at www.dnr.state.mn.us.