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Chronic wasting disease: As reports continue, lawmakers try to combat fatal condition

A whitetail buck and doe stand at attention. (Minnesota DNR)

Minnesota lawmakers want to combat a fatal disease in deer and other animals, but they've not yet come to an agreement on how best to do that.

Legislators have brought forth a slate of proposals for dealing with chronic wasting disease that range from funding additional tracking in hopes of containing an outbreak to buying out existing deer farms and placing a moratorium on how they can be used moving forward.

The push to prevent the spread of CWD comes after state officials have confirmed more than 30 cases of the disease in Minnesota. Wisconsin, by comparison, has reported thousands of cases. The disease is always fatal in cervids including deer, moose, elk and in other species.

It has not yet been detected in humans. But scientists worry that the disease, which is like mad cow disease, could become a danger to humans if not kept in check.

And state legislators should be acting quickly to contain the spread, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said.

"It's absolutely critical that we do something now. It's a disease outbreak," Becker-Finn said. "We don't want to end up like Wisconsin."

Becker-Finn is carrying three bills aimed at keeping wild deer from coming into contact with animals that might have CWD. One would require deer farms to have at least two, 10-foot fences keeping the animals in, a second would block future deer farms from opening and offer a buyout for existing farms. A third proposal would move the responsibility for regulating deer farms from the state Board of Animal Health to the Department of Natural Resources.

The proposals have not yet been heard in committee. But another measure, which would give $1.5 million to help the commissioner of natural resources track and respond to wildlife disease, advanced on Monday, Feb. 4.

Senate File 444 passed the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources and moves now to another Senate committee for consideration. Its sponsor, Sen. Michael Goggin, R-Red Wing, said he brought the bill to “keep our animals and our herds safe and disease-free."

Chronic wasting disease stems from a mutation in proteins called prions and it was first detected in captive deer in 1967. It is highly contagious. It can be spread through an animal's waste, saliva and bodily fluids. And infected waste or deer carcasses can then transmit those prions to soil and plants, where they can live for an undetermined amount of time.

There's no test at this point that can detect the disease in live deer. And there's no vaccine or antidote to get rid of it.

University of Minnesota scientists have also asked for almost $2 million to fund the creation of a tool that can be used to test deer and other cervids for the disease. Lawmakers are set to weigh the request as they plan how they'll write the state's nearly $50 billion budget.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka on Monday told the Forum News Service that lawmakers agree that the disease's spread is a "real problem" but have not yet set a clear plan on how to address it.