Minnesota's new CWD measures: Will they work?

Virgil Chilson, Erik Hildebrand
Virgil Chilson and Erik Hildebrand load a deer carcass into a truck in Oronoco, Minn. The measures to curb chronic wasting disease passed during a special session came with heavy compromise, but experts say it was a good start.
Nate Howard | MPR News 2011

Chronic wasting disease was a contentious topic this legislative session. Lawmakers came in with a laundry list of tough proposals designed to slow the spread of the fatal deer disease.

But those bills were quickly whittled away by committees and compromise. What actually passed is less drastic, but experts say Minnesota's new CWD measures are a good start.

The most notable bill enforces what's referred to as mandatory depopulation. If CWD is found on a captive deer farm, the whole herd is now required to be wiped out.

"That is entirely consistent with how other diseases are dealt with in agriculture," said Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator for the wildlife division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Depopulation is the only thing proven to stop the disease, but it almost didn't make it through the Legislature.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said at first mandatory depopulation was seen as just another extreme suggestion. It was a long shot at best.

"No one wants to look like they're cracking down on farmers," she said.

But then, in the middle of the session, a CWD-infected deer farm in Crow Wing County spread the disease to wild deer outside the property's fence.

The farm had been infected for two years, but the owner refused to take a federal buyout and kill off his herd.

The Board of Animal Health, which regulates deer farms, didn't have the authority to force the issue, so the disease was allowed to fester on the landscape. CWD spreading off the farm was almost inevitable, yet nothing was done.

The case was a turning point in the conversation, Becker-Finn said.

Lawmakers decided they couldn't let the same scenario happen again — and the move turned out to be less controversial than expected.

Steve Porter has run a deer farm near Lake Bronson in northwestern Minnesota for almost 30 years. While he opposed mandatory depopulation, he said he can see both sides of the issue. And if his own farm was ever infected, the new rule wouldn't really change much for him.

"I personally would take the buyout," he said. "It's a dreaded disease. I don't want to raise sick deer."


Overall, Porter said the new measures were something of a relief. He thought the rules would crack down a lot harder on deer farmers.

At one point, Becker-Finn introduced a bill to buy out the entire deer farm industry. That one failed, but then she drafted another bill that would have required all deer farms to put up two separate 10-foot high fences around their pens to keep any possible infections contained.

From a scientific perspective, double fences make a lot of sense, wildlife officials say.

CWD is not caused by a virus or bacteria of some kind. It's caused by faulty brain and nerve cells called prion proteins. They eat away at a deer's brain. Within just a few years, a once healthy deer becomes bony and confused, shedding more infectious prions through strings of drool.

The disease is easily passed from farmed to wild deer by nose to nose contact, Richards said, even through a single layer of fence.

But for Porter, the double fence bill would have meant the end of his business. He estimates it would cost him $70,000 to comply.

The Legislature passed a compromise that no one is happy with. Farmers will have to install double gates on their pens, which Porter said is still a pain and Richards said won't really do much to prevent CWD.

"What will a double gate accomplish?" Richards said. "How many instances of a gate left open are there? It seems like that should be a very rare event to start with."

Research funding

The Legislature also approved a $1.8 million check to the University of Minnesota to develop a new CWD test.

Current CWD testing is slow, expensive and labor-intensive. Early this year, researchers at the U of M told lawmakers they could change all that.

Jeremy Schefers runs CWD testing at the University of Minnesota.
Jeremy Schefers runs chronic waste disease testing at the University of Minnesota. The two-week, 40-step testing process starts with a severed deer head, in a lab in the university basement. This one is frozen solid, and will have to thaw.
John Enger | MPR News

They promised to create a near instant test that could be carried out in the field on living deer. And they promised to do it in just two years.

If they pull it off, Richards said, the test would be a game changer — but he's not optimistic about their chances.

Prion diseases are incredibly complex, he said, and the science tends to move slowly.

"I'm happy to see Minnesota is funding research," he said, "At the very least, it'll move the science forward."

'Low-hanging fruit'

One of the cheapest measures to make it through the Legislature this session could be one of the most effective.

Becker-Finn carved out $50,000 for the DNR to install deer carcass dumpsters in southeastern Minnesota, where CWD is most prevalent.

That might not sound like a big step, but Richards said it is.

Most hunters deposit their deer carcasses in the woods and leave them there to rot. That's fine if the deer was healthy, but if it was infected with CWD, those prions could spread to other deer.

"When you dispose of a carcass properly," Richards said, "You decrease the amount of infectious material on the land. You decrease the risk."

Doug Duren holds the skull of a CWD-infected deer.
Doug Duren holds the skull of the first chronic wasting-infected deer ever shot on his family farm.
John Enger | MPR News 2018

Becker-Finn got the dumpster idea from Wisconsin hunter and landowner Doug Duren. Before last year's deer hunting season, Duren rounded up nearly a dozen special plastic-lined dumpsters, and dropped them off in the townships around his family's farm.

Since then, he has collected and safely disposed of roughly 1,400 carcasses. Based on the prevalence of CWD in his area, Duren estimates his dumpsters have kept an estimated 250 infected carcasses off the landscape.

"It's not going to stop CWD," Duren said, "but it will help. It's low-hanging fruit."

Minnesota's CWD dumpster program will be modeled on Duren's — with one notable exception. Minnesota's program will be funded with state money.

Duren couldn't convince Wisconsin lawmakers to get onboard. He rented his dumpsters with money he raised selling T-shirts.

"Ask me how much government money I used," he said. "I got $300 from one township. That's all."

Minnesota is spending money on CWD. Richards said, that's important. The state's new measures might not be as tough as they could be, he said, but they're a lot better than nothing.