DNR ramps up CWD monitoring this weekend
St. Paul — With chronic wasting disease raging out of control over the border, Minnesota DNR was making the final preparations this week for a major disease surveillance effort in southeast Minnesota heading into firearms deer season, which opens Saturday.
Monitoring for CWD depends on the cooperation of hunters voluntarily submitting their deer for sampling so that it can be tested, and southeast Minnesota hunters were helpful when the DNR last ramped up such efforts after the state’s first and only wild deer positive for the disease, near Pine Island in 2011.
“Historically, cooperation has been excellent,” said Lou Cornicelli, Minnesota DNR wildlife research manager. “The people who hunt in this state have always been wonderful to deal with when it comes to submitting samples. We realize we aren’t going to get a sample of a trophy buck.”
Hunters in the southeast Minnesota deer permit areas where the testing will take place (339, 341, 342, 343, 345, 346, 347, 348 and 349) can’t register their deer by phone or Internet during the surveillance period. Deer here must be registered at a walk-in registration station. While they are encouraged to submit a sample, it is not required. The sampling takes only a few minutes, and is done as the deer is registered.
DNR last conducted CWD surveillance during the 2014 deer season, and didn’t test last year after four years with no positives.
The disease is caused by an abnormal protein, called a prion, that affects the brain of cervids, such as deer and elk. It’s always fatal, and spreads from one animal to another. Animals can be infected for years before showing signs of the disease. New research has shown that long-term infections in wild deer herds have led to populations declines.
Minnesota DNR has a CWD management plan, which calls for surveillance when risk of the disease increases, and can be initiated with positive among captive animals or when it’s found in neighboring states.
While Cornicelli said it’s possible the disease is present among wild deer inside Minnesota borders, it’s unlikely there is a major infection, the likes of which the state of Arkansas recently discovered.
“We have done a lot of surveillance,” he said. “I don’t think we have this raging infection that we haven’t discovered yet.”
Cornicelli said that while the primary emphasis has been put on the firearms season, since that’s when most deer are killed by hunters, the agency has already begun collecting samples during the archery season.
The disease has been expanding in Wisconsin for years, and has also expanded into northeast Iowa in recent years. Minnesota’s monitoring effort is limited to most of the 300 series deer permit areas, (339 to 349), closest to those outbreaks.
“Unfortunately, the horse is out of the barn in Wisconsin,” Cornicelli said.
The disease is believed to have been present and spreading in Wisconsin for a long time before it was first discovered, putting the Badger State at a disadvantage for controlling it.
“Our job is to do what we can to detect it early,” Cornicelli said. “If we find it early, that’s when we can do something about it.
The goal was initially to collect 3,600 samples, but Cornicelli said that has been scaled back to 2,700. The goal is 300 samples per deer permit area, except for the counties of Houston and Winona, which are closest to the over-the-border outbreaks. So in areas 346 and 349, the DNR has a goal of collecting 450 samples per area.
To further encourage hunters, two conservation groups have teamed up with the DNR to offer incentives to hunters for their participation.
Blufflands Whitetails Association donated a compound bow and a muzzleloader, while the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association donated a muzzleloader. The prizes will be given out randomly in a drawing. Hunters that submit a sample for testing will receive an entry for every sample they submit. Every hunter that participates will also receive a DNR “cooperator” patch.
DNR staff will be working 30 sites, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5 and Sunday, Nov. 6, and from 9 a.m. to noon on Monday, Nov. 7. A smaller number of stations will be open the following Saturday and Sunday. DNR expects that it won’t meet its goals during the 3A season, so it is planning on staffing stations during the Nov. 19-27 3B season.
“It’s a giant undertaking,” Cornicelli said of the logistical effort to staff the registration stations. “Right now, we are finalizing the scheduling, the planning, the students and our staff.”
At full tilt, there will be about 200 individuals working the stations, including about 60 or so DNR staff. Among them are more than 150 students, mostly from the University of Minnesota’s veterinary, animal science and wildlife biology departments.
Joe Albert contributed to this story.