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Local hunters keep an eye on CWD developments

A whitetail doe stands at attention while looking for some green grass early in the spring of 2016 near Alexandria. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

For the second straight year, Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in Minnesota's wild deer herd as hunters and Department of Natural Resources staff continue to try to combat a disease that still has so many unknowns surrounding it.

As of Dec. 4, the DNR confirmed six more deer killed in southeast Minnesota's disease management zone tested positive for CWD during the first firearms season this year. That's after 11 confirmed cases were found in Fillmore County during last year's hunting season and the DNR's efforts to combat the disease through a late-season hunt, landowner shooting permits and sharp-shooting efforts. Previously, the only other wild deer with the disease found in Minnesota was harvested near Pine Island in 2010.

So far, CWD has not been found in wild deer outside of the southeastern portion of the state, but that doesn't mean that some hunters locally are not monitoring closely the results of the testing being done by the DNR on whitetails killed.

Deer permit areas 218 and 277, areas not far south of Alexandria, were among the precautionary testing areas where hunters were asked to submit their deer kills to be tested during the first two days of the firearms season Nov. 4 and 5. The testing was done to determine whether the wasting disease may have spread from a captive deer to the wild deer herd in central and north-central Minnesota.

Hunters help out locally

Glenwood Area DNR wildlife manager Kevin Kotts worked the sampling station in Glenwood those two days and said they collected almost 115 samples. For the most part, hunters they worked with were interested in asking questions and willing to help out.

"Hunters were pretty darn cooperative," Kotts said. "(They) were pretty interested. We handed out the CWD fact sheets. This is something to be aware of. Maybe not something to be afraid of, but certainly something to be aware of."

The DNR had a sampling goal of 450 in both of the local permit areas and hunters showed up to almost double those goals. Permit Area 218 had 807 samples taken and area 277 had 889. Among those, no cases of CWD were suspected or confirmed. The higher participation numbers increases the sample size, which helps the DNR say with more confidence that the disease has not reached the wild deer herd in this portion of the state.

"That shows right there (that hunters are interested)," Bruce Lien of the local Quality Deer Management Association chapter, Prairie to Woods Whitetails, said. "I think all hunters should be concerned about it because if it comes into an area that has a lot of deer like our area, that could be devastating."

"So much we need to learn"

Chronic Wasting Disease is a fatal brain disease in deer, elk and moose that has been found in some areas of North America, Norway and South Korea.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of infected animals can include weight loss, stumbling, listlessness and other neurological symptoms, but any symptoms may take more than a year to develop. Scientists believe CWD proteins spread between animals through bodily fluids or through environmental contamination of soil, food or water. Experts also believe the disease can live in the environment for a long time, making animals more susceptible of contracting the disease even after an infected deer has died.

The disease is always fatal in deer. There is no scientific evidence that the disease presents a health risk to humans who come in contact with infected animals or eat infected meat, but the CDC does advise against eating meat from animals known to have CWD.

Research in Canada called the Macaque-CWD study is taking a closer look whether the disease can spread to another species. The study, which started in 2009, introduced CWD material to 21 Macaque monkeys from white-tailed deer or elk, including by feeding them meat from infected animals. Years later, the monkeys became ill with CWD.

"This is a new result that hasn't been published yet, but there's a whole lot of interesting stuff there," Chris Jennelle, a research scientist with the DNR's Wildlife Health Program, said. "There's still no concrete evidence that people can be infected, but it just heightens our concern of that disease barrier being broken."

It is part of the many questions that researchers are still trying to find answers to.

"There's so much that we need to learn about CWD on multiple levels," Jennelle said. "How do we better understand transmission of CWD between wild deer? Then how can we better predict how CWD spreads amongst deer on the landscape so we can better manage it. How do we manage it effectively and efficiently? It's being looked at by a bunch of different groups."

An aggressive approach

The response by the DNR to finding Chronic Wasting Disease in wild deer in Minnesota a year ago was to take an aggressive approach to try to limit its spread.

Feeding bans were put in place. Carcass transportation bans were set with no deer shot in the disease management zone allowed outside of the area unless a negative CWD test was received. No whole carcasses of deer, elk, moose or caribou killed outside of Minnesota are allowed to be brought back into the state, as well.

A special 16-day deer hunt last year in southeastern Minnesota was put in place through Jan. 15, 2017, and almost 300 permits were issued to allow landowners to remove deer from their property. Through the 16-day special hunt, an additional 873 deer were killed.

Jennelle pointed to studies done in high CWD-infected areas in Colorado and Wyoming that show long-term population declines in the deer herd as a reason to why it is so important to catch and respond to it early.

"CWD left to its own devices will increase in prevalence, and once it's been in the population a long time it can and will cause population decline in deer," Jennelle said. "We're talking potentially decades from now, but as a management agency we're concerned about the long term and short term. The best chance to control it is if you detect it early, and we feel like we have caught it fairly early. This is the time to get a handle on the problem."

It's widely believed that one of the best ways to limit an outbreak is to reduce the density of deer in a specific area, preventing animals from coming into contact with each other. Mass kill-offs of deer in specific areas is the approach many state wildlife agencies take to try to limit its spread.

"That can always be a concern for anybody," Lien said. "It's a lot of deer."

So far, so good locally

Right now, west-central Minnesota and the Alexandria area has no known cases of Chronic Wasting Disease in the wild deer herd, but Jennelle said it is impossible to know what could happen in the future.

"There's so many mechanisms of potential transmissions," he said. "Some of those aren't natural. It's potentially people carrying infected carcasses across the landscape and not even knowing it. There's the potential for infected cervid farms to facilitate transmission to wild deer. Those are two big concerns."

Lien said that CWD is something that the local Quality Deer Management Association chapter has talked about and continues to monitor. It is on a lot of people's radars, but so far, the disease is not something hunters have had to deal with directly on a local level.

"That will change things if we do have a wild positive deer," Kotts said. "Then we'll be into the mode that they are on the southeast. I hope we don't get it in my work area. I don't know how likely that is over time, but so far, so good. I'm glad about that."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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