The latest confirmed spread of chronic wasting disease has taken the dreaded deer threat as far north as it's ever been found in Minnesota, to an area northeast of Bemidji where tribal hunting is now at increased risk for CWD.
State officials earlier this month confirmed that the contagious and always fatal neurological disease in deer, elk and moose was discovered in a dead, commercialized white-tailed deer inside the fence of a farm recently cited for a record-keeping violation. The animal was acquired in 2019 from the same deer farm in Winona County that sourced another CWD-positive deer. That animal was living at a deer farm in Houston County when the disease was detected five months ago.
While the state Board of Animal Health works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rid the Beltrami County farm of all deer, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is collaborating with Ojibwe fish and game leaders to mitigate the risk of CWD spreading into the area's wild deer herd. For many Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth band members, wild venison is an important food source. Health officials advise people not to eat meat from a CWD-infected animal.
"What has heightened this a lot is the sovereignty of three tribal nations," said Michelle Carstensen, the DNR's top wildlife scientist.
She said the DNR met this week with tribal biologists to begin crafting a plan to utilize hunters to sample wild deer during the fall harvest. Also coming will be a ban throughout Beltrami County to stop public feeding of deer — a practice that scientists believe congregates the animals in ways that increase the threat of CWD spreading.
The infected farm is within the boundaries of Ojibwe-ceded territory where tribal members still maintain hunting and fishing rights. Red Lake and Leech Lake reservation lands lie within a 15-mile radius of the infected farm, which is located between Blackduck and Tenstrike. The circle around an infected farm is traditionally the area most watched by the DNR for CWD detections. White Earth land is further away but within the possible range for surveillance and mitigation that is estimated to cost Minnesota taxpayers nearly $1 million over the next three years.
If CWD is not discovered in wild deer during that time, DNR will focus elsewhere in its fight against the disease. Beltrami County, including Minnesota Deer Permit Area 184, is now the fifth geographic area in the state where wildlife biologists are working to conduct CWD surveillance and mitigation. The campaigns have sometimes involved mandatory testing of hunter-harvested deer and lots of extra hunting to thin respective deer populations.
According to the DNR, infected captive herds have spread CWD to wild deer in other parts of the state. In addition, the Board of Animal Health — the agency in charge of regulating deer farms and elk farms — has tracked the unintentional movement of CWD from farm to farm on repeated occasions. At the heart of the problem is that infected deer can appear healthy in the early stages of the disease. Testing is not currently available for live animals, only dead ones.
Steve Mortensen is Fish and Wildlife Program Director for Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. He has informed the Board of Animal Health of his concern that the CWD-infected farm could transmit the disease to wild deer. His agency has previously tested for CWD in the local deer population and never detected it, he said.
Mortensen said Minnesota needs new laws to protect wild deer from infections located within captive herds, including farms that raise fenced-in trophy bucks for shooting by paid customers.
"Should [deer farms] really exist in the first place?" Mortensen said. "You're taking a wild animal and putting it in a cage."
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL- Roseville, a Leech Lake Ojibwe descendant who hunts deer with family members in areas now poised for CWD surveillance, said Minnesota's fight against the deer disease is burdened by a regulatory agency that is too "buddy buddy" with deer farmers. The industry itself, she said, is in denial about the threat it poses to the state's invaluable wild deer herd.
"You've now allowed it to spread to two tribal nations," said Becker-Finn, who sits on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. "A lot of people who live there depend on venison as a food source."
She said the disease might not spread beyond the infected deer farm, but an outbreak could raise the potential for a lawsuit.
"The right to hunt means nothing if you can't eat what you hunt," Becker-Finn said.
Mortensen said deer abundance in the area is currently "respectable." But the local whitetail population is prone to declines from severe winters.
Dr. Linda Glaser, assistant director of the Board of Animal Health, said agency records show that the Beltrami County deer farm owner first registered a herd with the agency in 2018. Last year, according to records requested by the Star Tribune, he failed to submit an annual inventory of his animals and was given a notice of violation by a state inspector. Under an order to comply, he submitted an inventory in February, records show.
The Board of Animal Health said it can't publicly identify the deer producer or give the address of his farm. The deer that tested positive was one of four whitetails that died on the farm. One of those deer was too decomposed to be tested. CWD was not detected in another deer. Testing of a fourth deer was unsuccessful after the deer farmer collected samples from the animal without authorization or training.
"We have reiterated to the producer that he is not authorized to collect samples," Glaser said. "We will be addressing any other non-compliance by this producer once the herd has been depopulated."
Glaser said the unexplained deer deaths, including the animal that was too decomposed to be tested, raises the question of whether the deer farmer was sufficiently attentive to his livestock.
A new state law demands the shutdown of any captive deer facility where CWD is confirmed. Glaser said her agency "strongly suspects" but lacks proof that there's CWD inside the Winona farm linked to the cases in Houston and Beltrami counties. In the meantime, the Winona herd is under a quarantine that blocks movement of deer to or from the facility, she said.