Chronic wasting disease watchers wait for late hunt results and worry

Darin Stenzel walks out on a plowed field.
A deer hunter walked out on a plowed field in rural Wells, Minn., in 2015.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News 2015

Hunters in southeastern Minnesota shot about 420 deer just before Christmas in the first of two special late season hunts to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The hunts were part of the DNR's plan to slow the spread of the disease, which comes after one of the worst years for it in Minnesota history. The disease causes degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation and ultimately death.

When the year began, there were 17 confirmed cases of the contagious neurological disease in Minnesota's wild deer herds and those were isolated to a several-mile radius around the small town of Preston.

It was a reasonably small infection and was discovered in 2016. While there was an initial rush to contain it — with special hunts and federal culling — by the start of 2018, the DNR wasn't really doing much.

Spread continues

"In the spring, we were essentially waiting," said DNR wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli. "And yeah, it made me nervous. We were just hoping we did enough. Hoping it would get better."

But things did not get better, he said. This fall two more cases were found in the early archery season. Then, one by one, rifle hunters racked up about a dozen more.

Deer killed in the most recent hunts will all be tested.

The most troubling part, Cornicelli said, is that the new cases were discovered miles from the core of the infected zone.

"This year we (saw) another one at Forestville," Cornicelli said. "Another west of Harmony. Another west of Chatfield. So now we're starting to see that spread."

A deer bounded into a ditch in Lake Shore, Minn., Feb. 17, 2014.
Steve Kohls | The Brainerd Daily Dispatch via AP 2014

Professionals called to help

The findings sent a jolt through the DNR.

Within days of discovering the new cases, Cornicelli and his team released a new management plan. They set up two special late-season hunts — one last weekend and one slated for next weekend. They expanded the CWD management zone and opened bag limits so hunters can take as many deer as possible.

Cornicelli contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring in professional hunters to cull deer in the most infected areas.

"It's expensive," he said. "But it's very effective."

Land ownership can hinder work

The federal culling alone will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's a Herculean effort, but the reality is, how the new CWD plan works out isn't really within the control of the DNR," he said.

There's almost no state land in southeastern Minnesota. The agency can't do anything without help, or at least permission from landowners.

Jim Vagts is a fourth-generation farmer in southeastern Minnesota. This fall, a hunter shot a deer that tested positive for the disease just a mile from his 1,500-acre spread.

Now he's one of a handful of landowners to come out in vocal support of the DNR's CWD plan.

"I've been hunting since 1957," he said. "I'm very protective of the sport."

Vagts spends his winters in Arizona so he didn't participate in the hunt last weekend. He did invite about 20 men from the local Amish community onto his property to shoot as many deer as they could.

Some landowners aren't as supportive.

Right after CWD was first found in Minnesota, local landowners and their friends shot something in the neighborhood of 900 deer in a special season. Last year's special hunt netted fewer than 300.

"It was a total bust," Vagts said.

'Live in a very close community'

He said that's because some people don't believe the official, scientific narrative around CWD — that it's incurable, 100 percent fatal and will eventually reduce deer numbers.

Removing lymph nodes
DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand removed the lymph nodes and extracted a tooth from a deer for testing of chronic wasting disease in 2011.
Nate Howard | MPR News 2011

Those people thought the DNR was overreacting. They didn't want to shoot so many deer, and they made their feelings known.

"After that first hunt, the nonbelievers became very unfriendly with those who cooperated with the DNR," Vagts said. "In a rural area, you live in a very close community."

A lot of people stopped shooting deer, he said, just to keep the peace with their neighbors.

Vagts said he hopes that spread of the disease will convince the skeptics. And based on the large number of deer shot last weekend, that might be happening.

Cornicelli said support for CWD management does seem to be growing. He said he hopes it's not too late.

Fight far from over

But there was bad news, too. One of the last cases to be discovered was in Houston County — 40 miles from the original infection area, and just 8 miles from the Wisconsin border.

Cornicelli said he isn't sure yet where the animal came from. There are genetic tests underway aimed at helping to determine that. There's a chance it came from Wisconsin.

And that possibility fills Cornicelli with dread.

"The reality is, if it came from Wisconsin, it's a much bigger deal," he said.

Up to this point, Minnesota's CWD problem as been relatively isolated. Something that could, hypothetically, be contained.

If the Houston County deer came across the border that means Cornicelli is no longer trying to keep a small infection at bay. He'd be trying to stop a potential wave of infected animals.

If infected deer are swimming across the Mississippi River, fully stopping the disease may be impossible.

"We know we can't do this forever," he said. "But we also know that we can't do nothing, because that means the disease will spread and we'll look like Wisconsin.

"So," he said, "we're between a rock and a hard place."

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