Plans to bait and shoot deer near Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Preston, Minn., will go forward after local officials reversed a decision to stop the hunt. The Fillmore County Board voted Tuesday to allow federal sharpshooters to kill deer on public land bordering the cemetery — as part of the DNR's effort to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Fillmore County Commissioner Mitch Lentz cast the only vote against the compromise plan.
"I personally don't feel that hunting on cemetery ground is something that should be done," said Lentz. "I, as a hunter, would never consider such a thing. It's just something that I cannot personally do. And I don't think it should be done."
Lentz described the hunt as disrespectful to veterans and said he tried to stop it by enlisting the help of state Rep. Greg Davids, who represents the region including Fillmore County.
"Yep, I called for help," said Lentz.
He said Davids reached out to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs about the hunt. State law forbids hunting on state cemetery property. The compromise reached with the DNR still prohibits hunting on such property — but it does allow hunting on nearby public lands.
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The DNR said the controversy over the hunt came as a surprise. The agency did not view the cemetery as a sensitive location because there are just a few hundred graves concentrated in a tiny corner of the property, said wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli. Baiting and shooting would have taken place away from that area he noted. And the location is a vital part of the agency's overall chronic wasting disease containment plan.
"You know that's our center of infection. The data is really showing that," said Cornicelli. "So that's why it's so important that we have access to that epicenter."
Half of all the CWD-infected deer found in Minnesota came from a one-mile radius around the cemetery. Wildlife managers believe a core group of sick deer are living in that area — acting as a sort of anchor for the disease.
The special hunt targets that core group, but it has been hard to find places to shoot. In other parts of Minnesota, the state owns vast swaths of land. But most of southeastern Minnesota is privately-owned farmland. So the DNR has to get landowner permission to kill deer.
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A few landowners have allowed the department to conduct hunts, but Cornicelli said the deer have a way of finding the places where no one is shooting at them, including the state veterans cemetery.
"Within that section of land, we counted over a hundred deer on our aerial survey, so it's certainly functioning as a refuge," he said.
Cornicelli said the compromise is better than nothing and he hopes sharpshooters will be able to lure the deer off cemetery grounds.