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Minnesota regulations on chronic wasting disease under scrutiny

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Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, speaks during a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, about various bills she and others have introduced to combat chronic wasting disease, a neurological disease that affects deer.
Peter Cox | MPR News

When chronic wasting disease is found on a captive deer farm, here's what usually happens. The state Board of Animal Health quarantines the facility. Then, the USDA offers to buy out the infected herd and kill every animal inside the fence.

Destroying the herd is the only known method of containing the disease. But that's not what happened in 2016, when two deer at the Trophy Woods Ranch in Crow Wing County tested positive for CWD.

The farm was quarantined, but the owner didn't accept a government buyout of his herd.

Killing the infected herd is optional according to veterinarian Mackenzie Reberg with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

"The producer is not required by law to take the herd buyout," she said. "There is no mandatory response to a CWD positive."

Of the eight deer farms that have tested positive for CWD in Minnesota, Reberg said all but one have taken the buyout and disposed of their animals.

She isn't allowed to disclose the name of the deer farm that didn't kill its herd, but Trophy Woods owner Kevin Schmidt has talked publicly about his case on multiple occasions.

In 2016, he told KSTP News that he wanted to try to heal his herd, instead of wiping it out.

The Board said it has no authority to stop Schmidt as long as he complied with its quarantine rules.

"We're doing the best we can within our regulations," said Reberg.

But seven more deer at Trophy Woods got sick last year. And now state officials say the disease has spread off the farm.

An infected doe was found dead just half a mile outside the farm's fence line. And biologists don't think it's the only one out there.

The containment strategy didn't work, and now Minnesota Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn is pointing to the case as proof that deer farm regulations have to change.

She and a few other lawmakers have introduced bills to do just that.

"House file 305 is a moratorium on any new white tailed deer facilities," she said. "Restrictions on moving deer from facility to facility. And then a voluntary buyout option for farms who take this opportunity to leave the industry."

That one bill would essentially quarantine the whole deer farm industry, and likely force dozens of facilities to close.  

Another bill would give the Board of Animal Health power to forcibly destroy infected herds. A competing bill would put the DNR in charge of regulating deer farms, and give them the power to kill herds.

One of the more modest proposals under discussion would require all Minnesota deer farms to build double fences around their pens, 10 feet high.

Whatever the legislature decides to do, or not do, CWD experts say leaving the disease on the landscape, even inside a deer farm, was a bad idea.

"CWD did not exist in this free ranging deer population until it arrived via the captive facility," said Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator for the wildlife division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

He said once CWD was discovered, it should have been dealt with immediately. The herd owner's attempt to heal his animals, he said, was doomed from the start because there is no cure for CWD. And the longer the disease circulated in the herd, the greater the chance it would spread outside the farm.

Minnesota's current rules, he said, gave the disease a foothold 200 miles outside the established infection zone, and put huge swaths of the state at risk.

"Whether that's acceptable is a subjective determination," he said. "The legislature makes the rules in which the Board of Animal Health and DNR operate, and ultimately those legislators report to the voters."

While the Legislature debates the future of Minnesota deer farms, the Board of Animal Health says it's working with the USDA to make owner Kevin Schmidt another buyout offer. Messages left for Schmidt weren't returned.