New spread raises concern about fatal deer disease

White-tailed deer in Michigan.
A pair of white-tailed deer bucks feed by waters edge at dusk Aug. 12, 2011, at Greater Fouty-Rutkowski Pond in East Lansing, Mich.
Al Goldis | AP

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has found multiple chronic wasting disease (CWD) connections from a Beltrami County farmed deer herd to other parts of the state and to other states, raising concerns about a deadly spread.

The Beltrami County herd was quarantined last October after receiving a deer from a potentially infected herd in Winona County. In April, a deer in the Beltrami County herd tested positive for the always-fatal, brain-wasting disease. In addition, 54 remaining animals in the herd were recently killed, and 12 of those animals tested positive for CWD. Investigators have found links to farmed deer herds across the state.

“We have currently quarantined five additional registered farm cervidae herds in different counties throughout the state — Hennepin, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Morrison and Mower,” said Courtney Wheeler, senior veterinarian at the Board of Animal Health.

Those five quarantined herds account for about 200 deer that will eventually be killed. Potentially infected deer were also transported to at least four other states, according to Wheeler.

“What's concerning about this particular investigation is that spread,” she said. “They're not close together, so it's illustrating the potential for this disease to spread rather quickly through movements of farmed animals.”

During the investigation of the Beltrami County farm, deer carcasses were found dumped on nearby public land. Recent testing found prions that cause chronic wasting disease among those carcasses, raising the risk the disease could be transferred to wild deer in the area.

Prions can remain viable in the ground for several years, said Wheeler.

In a statement, the Department of Natural Resources said the situation with the Beltrami County farm “significantly changes the risk assessment and concern about CWD in Minnesota.”

CWD is currently found in wild deer primarily in southeastern Minnesota. In February 2019, the DNR confirmed chronic wasting disease in a wild deer found in Crow Wing County and established a new CWD management zone.

The DNR is working with Beltrami County to build a fence around the infected site to limit exposure to wild deer.

But officials are unsure how long carcasses infected with CWD were on the site, according to Wheeler. She said many of the dead deer were fawns, and the farm owner was not required to keep records of their deaths.

The DNR said the state must “move to a more proactive and preventative approach to addressing systemic gaps in the farmed deer system.'“

Testing of wild deer in the area will be done during the fall hunting season, and the DNR will work with the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth bands of Ojibwe on plans for sampling hunter-harvested deer.

Correction (May 26, 2021): An earlier version of this story described a Winona County herd as CWD infected. Officials say it is potentially infected.

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