Updated: 4:14 p.m. | Posted: 12:05 p.m.
Minnesota is taking a three-pronged approach to curbing the spread of a fatal brain disease among the state's estimated 1 million wild deer, the state Department of Natural Resources said Tuesday.
The agency has taken an aggressive approach to combating chronic wasting disease, which is incurable, said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager.
"In the case of this disease, we know doing nothing is not an option," Cornicelli said in a teleconference.
The agency plans to expand hunting opportunities and bag limits in areas where the disease has been found in wild deer. Harvesting more deer will reduce chances of the disease being spread, the DNR said.
A ban on feeding deer and using attractants — including doe urine and mineral or salt blocks — will go into effect in 18 counties in southeastern and north-central Minnesota on Sunday. Feeding is already banned in six central Minnesota counties. The DNR said shared food encourages close contact among deer, leading to the easy spread of disease. The agency said it expanded the ban after additional cases of chronic wasting disease were discovered in wild deer last fall and winter.
"We understand people enjoy feeding birds or other animals, but this has inherent risks," DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand said in a news release.
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People who live in counties where deer feeding is banned need to remove any salt, grains or other food that attracts deer. People who feed birds or small mammals must keep the food away from deer; bird feed should be kept at least 6 feet above ground. People living in southeastern and north-central Minnesota must remove any natural or manufactured products that attract deer.
The 2019 Legislature put into state law a DNR regulation that bans movement of whole carcasses of deer, elk, moose and caribou harvested from outside the state into Minnesota, Cornicelli said. The DNR also restricts movement of deer harvested near areas where other hunters have harvested deer that tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
DNR big game program leader Barbara Keller said deer hunters "are integral to our disease management efforts."
"CWD is still a relatively rare disease in our state, and we aim to keep it that way," Keller said in a statement.
The disease is not prevalent among Minnesota's whitetails, Cornicelli said. Since 2016, about 50 cases of CWD have been detected in wild deer in Minnesota, he said.
The disease was first confirmed in Minnesota in a captive elk farm in Aitkin County in east-central Minnesota in 2002 and later detected among wild deer in a hot zone in southeastern Minnesota in 2016.
Executive director Craig Engwall of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, which has nearly 20,000 members, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his organization has been supportive of the DNR's aggressive approach to chronic wasting.
"We think it's important that Minnesota continue to be proactive in addressing CWD so that we don't become a Wisconsin ," where the disease has swept across the state, Engwall said. "They (Wisconsin officials) were passive, and they paid the price."
The disease causes brain lesions in deer, elk and moose. While there is no strong evidence that CWD can affect humans, the Centers for Disease Control says the disease may pose a risk to people and exposure should be avoided.