Exactly how the Minnesota DNR might respond in its surveillance of the wild deer herd after a doe tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease in Douglas County from a small cervid farm this past December is starting to gain some clarity.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health announced on Dec. 10, 2019 that an 8-year-old white-tailed doe tested positive for CWD, an always-fatal neurological disease that affects the cervid family, after its white-tailed buck pen-mate killed it in a small, two-deer, hobbyist herd. It was the first confirmed case of CWD in Douglas County.

The subsequent investigation by the Board of Animal Health led it back to a cervid farm in Pine County where another doe tested positive for CWD. That Pine County facility provided animals to the Douglas County herd. Since then, the DNR has worked to gauge what risk there is to the wild deer herd in both areas.

“We did some aerial swipes over both facilities just to assess deer habitat in relation to the captive facilities to assess risk to our free-ranging deer populations,” DNR big-game program leader Barbara Keller said. “We had a stronger reaction in that Pine County area where all of the counties were added to the feeding ban because we think that farm is a little bit higher risk than that Douglas County farm.”

The DNR announced an expanded deer feeding ban in Minnesota that went into effect on Feb. 24. New counties included in the deer feeding ban are Carlton, Chisago, Douglas, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine and Pope. The deer feeding ban will remain in Stearns County due to the proximity to Douglas County.

In counties where deer feeding is banned, people need to remove any grains, fruits, nuts and other food that entices deer. People who feed birds or small mammals need to make sure that deer cannot access the food, keeping feed at least six feet above ground level.

“It’s such an insidious disease that it warrants that strong reaction of a feeding ban,” Keller said.

The feeding ban is step one in the DNR’s response to the CWD positive doe that was at the Douglas County facility for about nine months. Keller could not say exactly what additional surveillance plans would be. That will be made official with the rest of the 2020 deer regulations that come out in August.

“We haven’t determined exactly what that’s going to look like, but we’re likely going to do some surveillance in the free-ranging population in both of these areas to assess the risk,” Keller said. “It starts a three-year clock for this process. If we get through three years, and we’ve sampled enough deer and we feel comfortable with the number of deer that we’ve sampled and haven’t found the disease, then just like we’ve done in Meeker County, we’ll conclude our response.”

High deer densities and great deer habitat in close proximity to cervid farms where CWD is discovered could draw a more aggressive surveillance response by the DNR in the wild herd. In that sense, those concerned about this case in Douglas County got potentially better news after recent aerial surveys by the Glenwood Area DNR staff.

“We flew about three weeks ago, four weeks ago,” Glenwood Area Wildlife Manager Kevin Kotts said. “I shouldn’t say there are no deer around the farm, but it’s not a real high density deer area right around the farm. There’s maybe not a huge potential for those wild deer to be infected, but we’ll be monitoring. I’m not sure if that will mean head boxes where hunters drop them off and we sample them or if we’ll be setting up collection sites during the firearms season.”

As it pertains to the discovery of CWD in a captive cervid facility, the DNR’s CWD response plan states: “The Minnesota DNR will determine if wild cervids in the surrounding area are infected with CWD by conducting precautionary surveillance in the immediate area for a minimum of three consecutive years, which may include hunter-harvested surveillance, special hunts, landowner shooting permits, and agency-directed culling.”

“If we don’t find it in our free ranging deer population, I don’t see a case where we would have culling of the deer population,” Keller said of the Douglas County area. “So far, we haven’t found it in any wild deer in that area, so I don’t see us responding with culling unless we find it in a free-ranging deer.”

Alexandria meeting draws huge crowd

Keller and Kotts were both a part of the DNR staff on hand at the Alexandria deer population goal-setting workshop on Tuesday night.

It was the second of two workshops in the area that focused on deer populations in the Central Hills Prairie block of the state. Deer permit areas within this block includes 213, 214, 215, 218, 239, 240, 273, 276 and 277.

The first meeting drew nearly 30 people on Jan. 22. Tuesday’s workshop more than doubled that to 66 participants. That is by far the most attendance the DNR has seen at the workshops so far that also includes stops in Moorhead, Thief River Falls and International Falls this week.

“It tells me that there’s some strong opinions on deer populations,” Keller said of the Alexandria crowd. “So either strong opinions about there being too many deer or not enough deer.”

Those in attendance were split into groups based on the deer permit areas they came from.

“It was kind of an eye opener,” Mark Nohre, who was there representing the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said. “We all stated on a board what we thought -- increase (the deer population) by 25 percent, decrease 25 percent, increase 50, decrease 50 or leave the same. I was really surprised by the amount of, ‘Let’s decrease the amount of deer.’”

Nohre, Keller and Kotts all said the response from people varied depending on their situation. In a large permit area such as 213, those hunting in the south portion of the zone often have less habitat and fewer deer than those hunting to the north and east near Eagle Bend.

“Some folks were fairly happy with deer numbers, but where you have a lot of people showing up, they were mainly in those northeastern permit areas,” Kotts said. “I suppose as a deer hunter, they have the most incentive to show up to the meetings. I think the landowners who are having trouble with crop damage, they have a lot of incentive to show up too.”

Keller said the general consensus for the region as a whole was that deer numbers should remain the same or decrease.

“That differed based on that particular person’s perspective and if they owned land and were having damage by deer,” Keller said. “Those folks tend to want to see decreases. Hunters were a little more hesitant... There’s a lot of concern in how we could achieve those decreases.”

The DNR will take the information gathered at the workshops, along with the written and online survey information the public submitted, and use that to help form the goals they have for the region. Another public comment period will happen in late March once those recommended goals are developed. After that, the recommendations will be presented to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen for approval.