Auditor hits MN animal health board over chronic wasting oversight

Virgil Chilson, Erik Hildebrand
Virgil Chilson, left, and DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand load a carcass at Chilson's property into the back of Hildebrand's truck in rural Oronoco. Chilson is one of many landowners assisting in the harvest of deer for CWD testing. The state confirmed the first case of CWD in whitetail deer in the area in late January 2011.
Nate Howard | MPR Photo file

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has failed to adequately enforce state regulation of deer and elk farms when it comes to chronic wasting disease, according to a new report from the state legislative auditor's office.

The auditor's inquiry found the failings include not maintaining an accurate inventory of animals, failing to systematically analyze testing of animals for chronic wasting disease and not appropriately penalizing farmers who did not comply with testing rules.

"For example, we found that the board has not insured that deer and elk producers submit tissue samples as required for CWD testing of all deceased animals and in fact we found that in recent years about one third of producers did not submit required tissue samples for all diseased animals. This is concerning because these samples are critical for identifying and then subsequently controlling CWD in our state," deputy legislative auditor Judy Randall told the Legislative Audit Commission on Friday.

Minnesota has 398 registered captive herds, consisting of about 9,300 deer, elk, and related species.

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Chronic wasting disease is a fatal brain disease to deer, elk and moose but is not known to affect human health. Since 2002, the disease has been identified on eight Minnesota deer and elk farms and in wild deer in two southeastern Minnesota counties.

Precautionary testing by the DNR last fall in central and north central Minnesota after CWD was found on farms in Meeker and Crow Wing counties found no new cases in wild deer.

State Veterinarian Beth Thompson said the Board of Animal Health concurs with all the findings in the report and steps are being taken to ensure farms comply with regulations to test for CWD.

"I think in the past, our compliance officers probably gave the producers the benefit of the doubt but going forward we are going to have to enforce the fact that these folks need to be sending in their samples," said Thompson.

The board will increase training and accountability for field staff and improve reporting procedures, said Thompson.

The report also found tension between the Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources may have contributed to inadequate sharing of data about CWD between the two agencies. While the board is responsible for managing chronic wasting disease in captive herds, the DNR is responsible for managing the disease in wild whitetail deer.

"We are greatly concerned with finding that in some instances the Board of Animal Health has failed to enforce the state's deer and elk regulations and I concur with the recommendation that it should be a priority," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the commission.

Thompson says she has been meeting with DNR leaders to improve communication between the agencies.

The report also suggests the legislature set up an advisory task force to review state regulations on deer feeding and live animal imports, two risk factors for the spread of chronic wasting disease.

"Given that Minnesota's policies with respect to deer and elk feeding and live animal imports are less rigorous than those of some other states, we felt that they merit a closer look by the legislature," said Office of the Legislative Auditor staff member Sarah Delacueva.

Thompson said some concerns raised in the report are already being corrected, but others will involve long term education and ongoing changes to the program for managing captive deer and elk herds in the state.

Read the report