MINNEAPOLIS -- Wildlife crews will swoop down in helicopters above southeastern Minnesota early next year to capture and collar more than 100 deer to study how far they roam and what corridors they follow.
The chronic wasting disease (CWD) research project by the Department of Natural Resources is being launched with $350,000 in emergency funding to help stop the largest-ever CWD outbreak in Minnesota's wild deer population. Starting this week, the DNR will be seeking cooperation from private landowners to carry out the work on hilly, forested land that rings Fillmore County's 371-square-mile CWD management zone. The zone was created last fall after routine DNR testing of hunter-killed deer discovered a cluster of infected animals near Preston and Lanesboro.
State wildlife researchers have joined the fight with a plan to net 115 deer and place GPS tracking collars around the animals' necks. Their urgent research funding request was accepted by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), and the commission meets again this week to consider an additional grant of $552,000 in state lottery proceeds to extend the study for at least two subsequent years.
"It's an opportunity for researchers to get out in the very early phase of this outbreak to understand potential pathways" that CWD could travel, said LCCMR Director Becca Nash.
From region to region, deer disperse in unique ways from the territories where they were born, said DNR research scientist Chris Jennelle of the agency's wildlife health program. Data from deer-tracking collars will paint a real-life picture of dispersal patterns useful for setting meaningful boundaries for CWD surveillance and special deer herd management techniques.
Understanding how deer move across the landscape in southeastern Minnesota also will help computer scientists create predictive models of how CWD could spread, Jennelle said. The planned DNR study already has drawn interest and collaboration from the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.
"We want to be as precise as possible," Jennelle said. "It will help us fine-tune surveillance and potential management tools."
Michelle Carstensen, DNR's wildlife health program supervisor, said landowner participation is crucial because public land in the target area is scarce. The agency will soon distribute fliers soliciting volunteers and promising participants years of detailed data showing how deer congregate and move across their land. The GPS collars generally provide movement data for two years, and a total of 120 additional deer will be collared in 2018 and 2019 if funding is extended.
"People want to know what's happening on their 80 acres, and we'll share back the information," Carstensen said.
She said the study is important for the DNR to correctly manage the CWD zone, where a cluster of 11 hunted deer tested positive for the disease between November 2016 and March 2017. "We'll do our best to keep it from going to new areas of the state," Carstensen said.