I’m representing Outdoor News at the Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas this week, but a press release yesterday from the Minnesota DNR got my attention. It’s important enough that I’m carving out a few minutes in the press room of the Sands Expo Center to craft this blog.
The DNR issued a release yesterday noting that during the 2019 hunting season and special hunts, chronic wasting disease was confirmed in 27 wild deer, all from southeastern Minnesota.
The good news: CWD was not detected in wild deer in central and north-central Minnesota, and Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager, highlighted that positive in the release.
“Overall, this is good news for Minnesota’s wild deer. The disease is still relatively rare across the state, and the CWD-positive test results this year came from areas where we had the most risk,” Cornicelli said in Monday’s press release.
I’m sensitive because I hunt in southeast Minnesota, but learning there were 27 new positives in my neck of the woods hit me like a sledgehammer. The southeast CWD-positive tally prior to 2019 was in the low 50s, so adding another 27 positives represents roughly a 50-percent increase in one year.
You don’t need to be a professional statistician to understand that, in a few years, that kind of sustained expansion would mean hundreds of deer dead from this wildlife disease every year.
Examining the map with this blog showing the southeast positives the past few years also reveals new positives at the edge of the range. So not only is the volume of positives expanding, but the range appears to be moving north and west, too.
Cornicelli, attending some meetings of his own this morning, carved out a few minutes to address my concerns, and he talked me off the ledge, a bit.
The sharp increase in positives this year, he said, is at least partially attributable to mandatory testing across the region this past season. With all deer being tested in the area in 2019, more positives are turning up, including a few that may have been missed during voluntary testing the past few years.
I hope Cornicelli is right about the mandatory testing factor, and the proof will be what happens during a second year of mandatory testing in 2020. If we see fewer positives this year, say 10 or 15 total across the region, then we’ll be back on a growth curve that might calm Rob Drieslein.
If a DNR release appears a year from now saying we’ve found 40 or 50 during 2020 testing, then clearly the CWD genie is out of the bottle for southeast Minnesota.
Another practical point to keep in mind: The DNR has tested tens of thousands of deer in the southeast the past few years, and the total positives since 2016 is 77. In total in 2019, 12,618 hunter-harvested deer were tested in the southeast disease management and control zones.
As for the new outliers and expanding range, Cornicelli offered a bit of a silver lining there, too. They’re all bucks, which is exactly what the science has shown (and the reason the DNR canceled antler point restrictions across most of the former Zone 3). That fact that there were no new CWD-positive females at the edge of the range is good news, Cornicelli said.
“Bucks are the delivery system, but the does maintain it. We definitely get more nervous when we pick up an outlying doe because that usually means it’s established in an area,” he said.
A couple other points: One, we’re finding more positives in Winona and even Houston counties, which isn’t good. CWD clearly is becoming a region-wide, southeast issue. Two, the days of folks (like me) who thought it might be possible to eliminate CWD in the area, are over.
Cornicelli admits the window to eliminate the disease from the southeast, if it ever exited, is gone, but his agency believes the window to contain it still exists. He and DNR Wildlife Health Group Leader Michelle Carstensen say the focus now is on managing CWD as a persistent infection until scientific research finds new ways to combat the disease.
Unlike many other states, the Minnesota DNR has broad authority to manage wildlife diseases, and it will continue to be aggressive with CWD.
I’ve always supported the DNR’s aggressive approach with CWD management, and I still do. One thing’s for certain: 2020 will be an important year in the history of CWD in Minnesota. Either the 2019 increase was a blip because of mandatory testing… or we’re starting the beginning of accelerating growth for the disease in a region that looks a lot like south-central Wisconsin – where CWD is a major problem.