A forested piece of land near the tiny town of Hines has become the epicenter of an intensifying debate about the future of chronic wasting disease in Minnesota.
This is where the Department of Natural Resources found carcasses of deer dumped by a nearby deer farmer in violation of state regulations.
"These carcasses were disposed of over at least a couple of years,” said DNR regional wildlife manager Blane Klemek, as he stood next to a 10-foot-tall wire fence. The barrier encloses 11 acres, stretching down the middle of an ugly, 120-foot-wide scar cut through the forest.
The fence is designed to keep wild deer out of the contaminated site, where the prions that cause CWD were found in bones and soil.
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The dead deer dumped here had been torn apart and scattered by scavengers, making cleanup impossible by the time it was discovered earlier this year.
"And so in April, we had lots of staff out here in hazmat suits and everything, walking around,” explained Klemek. “And we found lots of bones."
The discovery raised fears that wild deer could have been exposed to the always fatal disease.
"There was potential for exposure because as we were building this fence, a lot of our staff out here reported seeing lots of [wild] deer," said Klemek.
The nearly $200,000 fence will need to be maintained and monitored for at least 20 years because the prions that cause CWD can remain viable in the environment for years.
The disease is caused by a malformed protein, or prion, which affects the nervous system in all members of the deer family, known as cervids.
“Think of it as an accelerated Alzheimer’s disease that can occur across all age levels of deer. That’s essentially what CWD is,” said University of Minnesota researcher Peter Larsen.
“Over time, the nerves begin to die off and you have in chronic wasting disease a phenotype where the animal literally wastes away.”
Larsen’s research group has conducted extensive testing at the Beltrami County dump site, and has ongoing research projects there to learn more about the movement and survival of prions in the environment.
A temporary movement ban
The farm near Hines had received deer from a southeastern Minnesota farm where CWD was later identified.
Movement is common among the cervid herds in Minnesota as farmers try to breed trophy animals for paid hunts.
The number of registered cervid farms has declined from a peak of 755 in 2005, to 282 this year, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Chronic wasting disease was first identified in Colorado in the 1960s. The first case was found in Minnesota in 2002, in a farmed elk. More cases were found in captive animals, and the first CWD-infected wild white-tailed deer was found in Olmstead County in 2010. The disease is now considered endemic in parts of southeast Minnesota.
In 2019, CWD was identified in a single wild deer in Crow Wing County, near a CWD-positive deer farm.
Last year a wild deer with CWD was found in Dakota County.
The Beltrami County farm is the northernmost CWD outbreak in the state, and so far, is confirmed only in the captive deer herd. Those animals have been killed.
There’s currently a DNR-imposed ban on the movement of farmed deer in Minnesota that’s expected to be in place for at least a year. The Minnesota Deer Farmers Association did not respond to an interview request, but a in brief statement, the group’s lobbyist said the movement ban’s “length and severity is unprecedented,” and the organization is considering legal options.
The DNR will test hunter-killed deer this fall in six surveillance areas around the state. Hunters in those areas are required to submit samples of deer killed during the opening weekend of hunting season.
The Beltrami County area is a new disease surveillance zone.
“I don't want to be an alarmist, but it could be too late if that Beltrami exposure to the wild deer herd put CWD in the herd there,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
Hunters demand a stronger state response
Engwall said deer hunting is important economically and culturally in northern Minnesota, and if CWD is found in wild white-tailed deer, it could deter hunters.
Research in Wisconsin, where there is a greater prevalence of CWD in wild deer, found concern about CWD was very low on the list of reasons people decided to stop hunting deer.
But concern is high among Minnesota hunters, said Engwall, and they want action taken on the farmed deer industry.
“I would say the urgency is acute,” said Engwall.
“We think the key first step is to stop movement of animals. We want that to be permanent. And then we want to look at phasing out the industry as a whole in a reasonable fashion as soon as possible.”
Engwall blames lax oversight by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (BAH) for the Beltrami County situation.
A 2018 report by the Legislative Auditor found the board sometimes failed to enforce regulations.
Among the findings: “BAH staff do not systematically analyze whether deer and elk producers submit tissue samples for CWD testing for all deceased animals.”
The report found that from 2014 to 2017, about one-third of farmers that reported dead deer or elk “failed to submit tissues from at least one of those animals for CWD testing.”
Testing dead deer or elk is a critical part of monitoring for chronic wasting disease, since the current tests approved by the Board of Animal Health are only used on dead animals.
What regulators are doing
Board of Animal Health assistant director Linda Glaser manages the farmed cervid program.
She insists the agency is enforcing regulations on those farms and the Beltrami County situation is not a regulatory failure, but a case of a farmer choosing to violate rules.
"The producer was aware of the regulations and simply didn't follow them,” she said. “Can we make everybody follow all the regulations? Can you prevent everybody from speeding, can you prevent everyone from not filing their taxes? We can't be at all the producers’ places 24/7 to make sure they do the right thing every morning they get up.”
If farmers don’t report dead deer or submit tissue samples for testing, Glaser said they can be fined $100 for each animal.
“If they continue in noncompliance, we have the final authority to then cancel their registration, which means they no longer can possess cervids, and they have to get rid of their herd,” said Glaser.
Data from the Board of Animal Health shows no herd registrations were canceled from the inception of the agency oversight in 2004 until 2019, when nine farms lost their registration. One additional registration was canceled in 2020.
Between 2016 to 2020, the agency issued 99 civil penalties to farmers.
From 2005 to 2015, agency data reports 48 civil penalties.
After concerns were raised about the board's response to CWD, the Legislature approved co-management of deer farms by the Board of Animal Health and the Department of Natural Resources last session.
The 2018 legislative auditors report found a “strained relationship” between the agencies.
Staff from both agencies said recently they are working on a plan for co-management. Two key areas are sharing data, and including DNR staff on inspections of deer farms.
A report to the Legislature on the co-management plan is due early next year.
Legislators debate what to do
Lawmakers are divided on how to address the issue.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, hunts deer on land in Beltrami County.
“So that's really top of mind and for me, it's really hitting home just how many deer hunters in our state have been impacted,” she said.
Becker-Finn said hunting close to a CWD-positive location means if she kills a deer, she wants it to be tested, and CWD ruled out, before the deer is cut up and put in the freezer. That could delay the usual process by a week or more.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists a variety of preventive steps for hunters, and while the agency said there have been no confirmed cases of CWD in humans, research indicates there is a potential risk to eating meat from infected animals.
Becker-Finn said while policymakers debate the issue, the disease spreads.
"I mean, we've been beating this drum for years, that we need to do more and take really decisive action,” said Becker-Finn. “And it just feels like it's taking too long, and the disease is going to move faster than, unfortunately, the speed of government."
Becker-Finn supports a proposed state buyout of deer farms.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chairs the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee and has held two recent informational hearings on chronic wasting disease.
Hansen owns a farm in southeast Minnesota and hunts in an area where the DNR conducts CWD surveillance.
Hansen calls CWD a “slow-moving crisis” the Legislature has failed to address for five years.
The deer farmers have failed to engage in discussion of solutions, he said.
“Five years is enough. There was an opportunity for testimony and support, but it's always opposition and belligerence, with no change,” said Hansen. “And you have to look at the risk/benefit here. Action needs to be taken, and it's way past time.”
Hansen wants the state to immediately test all deer farms, using new tools that allow for testing live animals and soil. That information will provide a much clearer picture of the statewide risk, he said.
But the test is not yet approved for use by federal officials and Glaser said the Board of Animal Health doesn’t plan to use it until it has been validated.
Hansen also expects a strong push in the next legislative session to shut down the farmed cervid industry and buy out the farms. St. Louis County commissioners recently approved a moratorium on new cervid farms in the county and urged state action on the issue. Other counties are discussing similar measures.
“I think you're going to see a variety of actions by local government. And that's usually when state government starts reacting,” said Hansen. "Even those folks who have previously been opposed to taking action, have to start listening to the county commissioners and localities.”
But not everyone supports aggressive action against the farmed cervid industry.
Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, has called the DNR ban on moving deer between farms a war on deer farmers, and he strongly opposes any buyout of farms.
“They're just going after the farmers because it's quantifiable, they're small and they can be taken out,” he said. “And now we have the deer hunters that are saying, ‘Take out the farmers,’ too, I just find this absolutely disturbing. I have real problems with this.”
Miller thinks lawmakers can find common ground on issues like expanded testing for CWD, but he predicts strong opposition to legislation that will limit or end the cervid industry in Minnesota.
CWD cases ‘still containable’
DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen supports a more aggressive approach to regulating deer farms but said recently she has questions about the viability of a state buyout shutting down the industry.
“It's easy to say we can buy them out. But is that actually solving the problem? Or is it moving the problem to somebody else,” said Strommen. “I think a really big question that we'll have to wrestle with is, since we know the prions persist in the soil, what happens to the land after it is no longer a deer farm?”
Strommen said while more research is needed on the persistence of prions in the environment, and the risk they pose to wild deer, farms where CWD outbreaks occurred might need to be monitored and managed for decades.
Strommen said the Beltrami County case is a clear indication the state needs to do a better job at preventing CWD spread, not simply reacting to a situation when an outbreak happens.
"It really was, I think, a very vivid example of what risk is posed, both in terms of the movement of deer and, inadequate management of captive deer."
The DNR has spent $14 million monitoring and mitigating CWD, and the state will spend about $2 million this fall testing more than 20,000 hunter-killed deer, looking for the disease in wild deer. Strommen points out that based on existing test data, the disease is still relatively rare in wild deer.
"There still is an opportunity to change the trajectory here and to contain this disease,” said Strommen. “As concerning as a situation like Beltrami County is, if we can get in front of those kinds of situations, this is something that is still containable."