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Chronic wasting fears rise as deer disposal plan unravels

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White-tailed deer
A white-tailed deer.
Courtesy Steve Gifford

A hauler contracted to empty dumpsters filled with deer carcasses during this year’s rifle hunting season is backing out over fears of chronic wasting disease.

The state placed special dumpsters in parts of central and southeastern Minnesota where chronic wasting has been found. The plan was to use them to safely dispose of thousands of potentially infected deer carcasses.

But Waste Management, the nation’s largest waste disposal company, is refusing to empty the dumpsters. With 10 days to go before the rifle season starts, officials now worry more hunters will toss bones onto the land where the disease can spread to other deer.

Waste Management doesn’t want to be held liable if the infectious material that causes chronic wasting spreads into the wild, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials told state lawmakers Tuesday.

“As of yesterday, they informed us that they would no longer be willing to handle this waste stream for us,” DNR wildlife manager Bryan Lueth told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Environment committees. “So we’re pretty much left to scramble.”

The deer dumpster program seemed simple at first. If a hunter throws an infected carcass into a dumpster instead of out on the landscape, it won’t spread the disease to other deer.

But the effort has been plagued with troubles from the start.

The DNR had a hard time convincing landfills to take potentially infected deer.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, asked Lueth what reason Waste Management gave for backing out of its contract.

“They said it was too much of a risk to their business,” Lueth said.

It wasn't immediately clear how much the contract was worth or what legal action, if any, the state might take. Waste Management officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

Chronic wasting is still very rare in Minnesota, but it’s potential spread is a constant worry for state conservation officials who are stewards of the state’s $1 billion annual deer-hunting industry.

First found in wild herds in southeastern Minnesota in 2016, chronic wasting is a death sentence for the animals who contract it. There's no cure for the brain disease and no vaccine.

While there’s currently no known crossover of the disease to humans, experts worry it could eventually jump species and find its way to humans.

At this point there are six deer dumpsters scattered around the infection zone in southeastern Minnesota. Most of the deer dumpsters in the more recent Crow Wing County CWD zone are closed according to the DNR website.

In Crow Wing County, only one infected deer was found during a two-year round of almost 9,000 tests. Even so, waste haulers and landfill managers have expressed concerns that if they did handle an infected deer, and that infectious material did spread, they might be held liable.

Deer shot in Crow Wing County can still be brought directly to the county landfill, but the future of the whole deer dumpster program will be hobbled if the DNR can’t find another hauler.

With so little time before the start of rifle hunting season, Lueth is considering handling the hauling in-house. If all else fails, he said he could rent heavy equipment and have his own staff haul deer carcasses.

Lueth said it’s been harder than he thought, telling lawmakers on Tuesday, “I was naive in thinking this would be simple.”