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A painstaking and high-stakes fight to stop a deadly outbreak of chronic wasting disease in wild deer in southeastern Minnesota has expanded to include faraway cases on commercial deer farms.

The infections in captive deer — potentially cascading to multiple farms — have prompted state quarantines on five private deer herds and renewed tensions between the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health, which regulates the business of deer and elk bred as livestock for fenced-in trophy hunts and other purposes.

The double outbreak has both agencies scrambling to halt the mad-cow-like disease from spreading and becoming intractable, as it has in Wisconsin and other states. As recently as Thanksgiving, Minnesota was thought to be CWD-free.

At risk is the state’s 1-million-animal deer herd, more than $500 million annually in economic activity tied to deer hunting and the state’s legacy of family and friends bonding over whitetails in the fall.

“It’s tremendously important to Minnesota to get this right,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said last week while he waited for a Board of Animal Health CWD update.

On Monday, a team of federal sharpshooters will join the DNR’s aggressive campaign to wipe out the disease where it sprang up in November in wild deer near Lanesboro. Meanwhile, CWD test results are pending for five high-risk deer removed from suspect deer or elk farms in Crow Wing and St. Louis counties. Any positive results will widen the scope of the outbreak and broaden a ban against recreational wild deer feeding soon to be announced for counties in central and northern Minnesota

The DNR predicts it will need at least $1.5 million to conduct CWD surveillance in wild deer herds around suspect farms starting in September. Landwehr said an emergency account at the Board of Health is one possible funding source.

Cozy relationship

Minnesota is home to 460 deer and elk farms that generate rural jobs and economic activity last measured in 2011 at $17.6 million a year. Dr. Paul Anderson, a veterinarian and assistant director at the Board of Animal Health, said the so-called “farmed cervidae” industry is keenly focused on CWD prevention and mindful that transmission of the disease can travel in or out of the mandatory 8-foot-high fences that enclose private herds.

“The DNR’s task is to deal with the wild deer and our task is to deal with the people who farm them,” Anderson said. “We’re working on this thing together as a team.”

But while Anderson speaks highly of the cooperation between the two agencies, two DNR officials on the front lines of CWD prevention say they have been frustrated by untimely and incomplete information sharing by Animal Health staff. They also see coziness in the relationship between deer farmers and the board, made up of three livestock producers and two veterinarians appointed by the governor.

“I struggle with the closeness of the regulators and the industry,” said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s leading CWD tactician and top big game researcher. “They are closer to their stakeholders than we are to ours.”

The DNR is particularly frustrated, agency e-mails show, about farmed deer escaping into the wild. The agency is also concerned the Board of Animal Health might change its CWD-related deer farm regulations, possibly compounding the threat to wild deer.

Michelle Carstensen, DNR wildlife health program supervisor, said that while the cervidae industry is heavily regulated, since 2002 CWD has cropped up on seven farms. The current investigation centers on Trophy Woods Ranch near Merrifield, Minn., north of Brainerd. Four other Minnesota farms have received deer from Trophy Woods and one of those deer, found dead on a farm near Dassel, on Dec. 10, tested positive for CWD last month.

“Before we worry about loosening regulations, you’d think we should more fully understand why the existing ones are failing to keep disease out,” Carstensen said.

Anderson confirmed that the Farmed Cervidae Advisory Committee at the Board of Animal Health will meet April 6 to consider rule changes to protect deer farmers from unnecessary financial hardship when CWD is confirmed in deer outside their fences. In Fillmore County’s hot zone, three farms that don’t have double fencing are now forbidden indefinitely from moving deer on or off their property.

“We want to be careful but we don’t want to be careful to the point where people go bankrupt,” Anderson said.

He said deer farmers “certainly are our customers, for sure.” The close relationship serves Minnesota well by fostering cooperation with animal disease regulations and other rules, he said.

Bad blood

Eight years ago, the DNR and Board of Animal Health clashed over an outbreak of CWD on a large elk farm north of Rochester along Hwy. 52. DNR crews found two dead elk on the farm and 22 holes in the farm’s fencing. Months later, the USDA declared the herd to be CWD infected and the farm was depopulated.

But in December 2009, Carstensen wrote in a DNR memo that the empty elk farm remained a “MAJOR risk factor” for wild deer. Whitetails were frequently spotted inside the fence, she said, even though the facility was ordered to be secured.

“The commitment to resolve the perimeter fence issues is no longer a priority” for the Board of Animal Health, Carstensen wrote.

She and Cornicelli said they believe but cannot prove that neglected fencing resulted in the state’s first documented case of CWD in a wild deer — an animal shot by a hunter in 2010 just 2 miles from the abandoned elk farm. The DNR’s aggressive response to that Pine Island outbreak removed 4,000 whitetails, and heavy CWD surveillance since then didn’t detect another case until now.

Anderson said Friday there’s no scientific way to know if the Pine Island case was linked to the elk farm. He said fence security is an ongoing issue that results in “a few” escapes of farmed deer every year. DNR views escapes as an ongoing CWD risk.

According to documents obtained from Animal Health and DNR, 91 deer escaped confinement last year and 16 were never found. In 2015, 30 animals escaped and 10 were not found. In 2011, 107 escapes led to 29 lost deer and elk.

A collection of more than 40 e-mails from DNR field personnel in 2010 and 2011 reflected a theme of frustration over the escapes. In one instance, conservation officer Brandon McGaw was alarmed by the escape of nine captive deer from a pen near Mora, Minn. His investigation revealed the deer farmer also had been feeding wild deer.

“What a shame. All it will take is one little spark for this wildfire to take off,” McGaw wrote to a supervisor.

Carstensen and Cornicelli have said they prefer infected farms be immediately depopulated. But Animal Health regulations allow infected farms to remain open as long as they don’t receive or ship deer. A storm knocking down a fence would negate the precautions, Cornicelli said.

“It’s not about us wanting to put our nose in their business,” said Cornicelli, who recently asked for “full partner status” in the farm investigations. “What happens inside the fence greatly affects what happens outside the fence.”

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213