Elk ‘depopulation’ bill approaching $1 million

Groups still

concerned about deer movement into contaminated former elk
farm

Rochester, Minn. — A year after a herd of nearly 560 elk in
southeastern Minnesota was euthanized because of chronic wasting
disease concerns, reports indicate white-tailed deer continue to
come and go from the still-fenced site near Pine Island, now
considered contaminated by the cervid disease.

The responsibility to eliminate invading deer immediately falls to
Tower Investments, LLC, the owner and developer of the property
once owned and operated as Elk Country U.S.A., along Hwy. 52. But
if company officials are unable to kill those deer, DNR personnel
are called in to shoot the deer, according to Don Nelson, DNR area
wildlife manager in nearby Rochester.

He said two deer were shot and killed within the fences around the
property last winter; those animals tested negative for CWD at the
state diagnostics lab in St. Paul, Nelson added.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters
Association, said there have been other instances of the area’s
security being compromised by deer. DNR veterinarians, too, have
been told of similar incidents.

“It’s unfortunate,” Johnson said. “Once they’re inside those
fences, they’ve signed their own death warrants.”

Already, costs associated with the elk herd have exceeded $1
million. The DNR spent about $200,000 last year (partly federally
funded) testing for CWD in the Pine Island area and along the
Wisconsin border (CWD was found in 2002 in that state).

Depopulation of the herd – and associated expenses, like testing
and transportation of samples – cost much more than that. According
to Cindy Ragin, public affairs specialist for the USDA’s Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service, “APHIS was responsible for the
depopulation itself, and the total spent on that effort is
$829,000.” Tower Investments was paid for the animals.

The demise of the former elk farm in Olmsted County – one of the
largest in the state – began early last year, when a slaughtered
cow elk from the farm tested positive for CWD, a fatal brain and
nervous system disease found in cervidae (deer and elk) in certain
parts of North America. It was the fourth such instance of CWD in
Minnesota. All involved farmed cervidae; no wild deer have tested
positive for the disease.

The finding at the Pine Island elk farm set off a series of events,
culminating in the death of the remaining 558 elk (the average
captive herd size in the state is about 40 animals) and the
commencement of DNR CWD testing around the site.

Last year, about 600 hunter-harvested deer in the Olmsted County
surveillance area (about a 20-mile buffer around the former elk
farm) were tested for the disease; none were positive.

Erika Butler, a DNR veterinarian, says the department hopes to test
another 500 this year. Testing likely will continue through next
year if no CWD-positives are found.

Nine months after that cow elk tested positive for CWD at Elk
Country, U.S.A., depopulation of the herd began. USDA Wildlife
Services marksmen euthanized the animals, according to the
Minnesota state Board of Animal Health, the group now charged with
monitoring the site.

According to the BAH, three of the elk tested positive for CWD.
Personnel from the USDA, Veterinary Services, and the BAH collected
the samples and shipped them to the USDA’s National Veterinary
Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for testing.

(Minnesota in 2003 implemented mandatory registration and CWD
surveillance programs for farmed cervidae herds; when farmed
cervidae over 16 months of age die or are slaughtered, herd owners
must submit brain samples for CWD testing.)

Scientists believe soil can remain contaminated with CWD prions
long after sick animals are removed. Therefore, an agreement
between the BAH and Tower states the company must remove the top
two inches of topsoil from the fenced-in area and place it into
another fenced area off-limits to deer for five years.

While news reports last week indicated construction had begun at
the site, officials from Tower said that activity was occurring in
an area that didn’t hold elk in the past. Therefore, they said, no
topsoil had been removed thus far at the future home of the planned
2,300-acre, $1 billion development.

According to the Tower web site, the location was chosen because of
its proximity to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “Elk Run,” as it’s
called, includes the 200-acre Biobusiness Park at Elk Run, which,
the web site states, “offers biotechnology companies an
unparalleled blend of flexibility, sustainability, and
connectivity.” The entire development is intended as “mixed use,”
combining a “high quality of life for residents alongside corporate
and scientific innovation …”

Malissa Fritz, BAH communications director, says board personnel
have been and continue to monitor Elk Run activity and adherence to
the CWD-related rules put in place.

“The fence is still up and the gates are still closed,” Fritz said
last week. “We continue to check on that as needed.”

Still, according to the MDHA’s Johnson, the existing fences, based
on reports received by various government agencies, don’t appear
adequate to keep deer from breaching the barrier.

“My understanding is they’re going over the fences, not through the
gates,” he said last week.

He called the situation “unfortunate and dangerous, from a wildlife
standpoint.”

Butler said DNR veterinarians, too, had received similar
notifications. “We’ve had reports of fences down, and deer within
the fences,” she said.

The DNR’s Nelson said another concern regarding the property is
possible highway reconstruction in the area, to accommodate the
development, and what that reconstruction might mean for the fenced
area.

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