Minnesota’s largest deer hunting group has taken an aggressive stance toward captive deer farms as it seeks to contain a the spread of chronic wasting disease among the state’s wild deer.
The positions announced this week by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association could prove significant at the state Capitol, where lawmakers are weighing a series of CWD proposals that face resistance from a group representing many of the state’s 400 deer and elk farms.
Here are some of what the group wants:
- Mandatory killing of all deer on any deer farm where one tests positive for CWD. Many animal farms are subject to this requirement for other contagious diseases, but deer and elk farms are treated differently today.
- Banning captive deer - and even blood and semen - from being transported in and out of the state. This cuts to the heart of the deer farm industry, which largely operates with the goal of breeding bigger bucks with larger antlers for the controversial practice of hunting on private preserves.
- Banning any new deer or elk farms from starting in Minnesota, offering existing farms voluntary buyouts, and increasing the fencing requirements on farms to prevent animal escapes.
- Ending antler-point restrictions, which are essentially a minimum size requirement for hunters shooting bucks during the fall seasons in the southeast portion of the state. It was hunting groups that initially called for the restrictions.
- Doubling a 50-cent fee tacked onto every deer hunting license to help fund wild deer health.
“MDHA members recognize that CWD is the biggest threat to Minnesota’s, and North America’s, wild deer herd,” said Craig Engwall, the hunting group’s executive director. “MDHA, as Minnesota’s leading deer organization, will do everything it can to protect Minnesota’s deer and deer hunting tradition.”
In the past decade, as the disease, which is always fatal to deer, spread across Wisconsin and a number of other states, Minnesota remained largely insulated, with only sporadic cases surfacing. Minnesota hunting groups stayed largely on the sidelines, as did most lawmakers. While wildlife officials monitored the disease, proposals like these were floated, but never gained much traction.
However, the state now is in the midst of its largest outbreak to date - and it’s in southeast Minnesota, where the some most prized and large-antlered deer in the country roam. Since 2009, more than 40 wild deer have tested positive. The outbreak is suspected to have started on a deer farm.
The mobilization of hunting groups behind a cohesive set of priorities creates a situation that is hard for lawmakers of any party to ignore.
A smaller but significant deer hunting group, Bluffland Whitetails, which was one of the driving forces behind antler point restrictions, is also supporting the bulk of the MDHA’s platform, several of which are already included in proposals by lawmakers.
“We’ve been asking for more debate on this for years, and it’s finally happening,” said John Zanmiller, a volunteer advocate for Bluffland Whitetails. “I think the more people hear about this, the more they’ll insist on acting on it. This is the year to do something about it.”Deer farms skeptical
Deer farming groups have begun a counter-offensive, blitzing lawmakers and the media with information casting doubt on the seriousness of CWD and its ties to deer farms.
Tim Spreck, a lobbyist who represents about 100 deer farm owners who are part of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, said deer farm operators want to work with lawmakers to stop the spread of CWD, but they feel unfairly targeted.
“There’s been too much finger pointing at deer farms, while there are other things that need attention as well,” Spreck said.
Spreck listed several areas that wildlife and animal health experts have also highlighted as potential vectors for the spread of chronic wasting disease, including taxidermists, roadkill carcass disposal, and hunters bringing deer they’ve shot from out of state back to Minnesota - something that’s already prohibited but is generally believed to have questionable levels of compliance.
Deer farmers aren’t necessarily opposed to some of the items on the MDHA’s agenda, Spreck said, but he said taxpayers will need to help pay for changes, such as installing additional and higher fences.
“These people entered into a legal business, and now they want to change the rules on them,” he said.
Many of the proposals have Democratic support in the Democratic-controlled House. It remains unclear how much support they’ll have in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, himself a deer hunter, has said he wants to address the disease but wants to make sure that solutions are based in science.
There is no cure or treatment for CWD. The basic strategy of containing a wild outbreak is to shoot as many deer as possible and keep checking them until you have several years in a row with no positive results.