MINNEAPOLIS — The latest confirmed spread of chronic wasting disease has taken the dreaded deer threat as far north as it's ever been found in Minnesota, to an area northeast of Bemidji where tribal hunting is now at increased risk for CWD.
State officials earlier this month confirmed that the contagious and always fatal neurological disease in deer, elk and moose was discovered in a dead, commercialized white-tailed deer inside the fence of a farm recently cited for a record-keeping violation. The animal was acquired in 2019 from the same deer farm in Winona County that sourced another CWD-positive deer. That animal was living at a deer farm in Houston County when the disease was detected five months ago.
While the state Board of Animal Health works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rid the Beltrami County farm of all deer, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is collaborating with Ojibwe fish and game leaders to mitigate the risk of CWD spreading into the area's wild deer herd. For many Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth band members, wild venison is an important food source. Health officials advise people not to eat meat from a CWD-infected animal.
"What has heightened this a lot is the sovereignty of three tribal nations," said Michelle Carstensen, the DNR's top wildlife scientist.
She said the DNR met this week with tribal biologists to begin crafting a plan to utilize hunters to sample wild deer during the fall harvest. Also coming will be a ban throughout Beltrami County to stop public feeding of deer — a practice that scientists believe congregates the animals in ways that increase the threat of CWD spreading.
The infected farm is within the boundaries of Ojibwe-ceded territory where tribal members still maintain hunting and fishing rights. Red Lake and Leech Lake reservation lands lie within a 15-mile radius of the infected farm, which is located between Blackduck and Tenstrike. The circle around an infected farm is traditionally the area most watched by the DNR for CWD detections. White Earth land is further away but within the possible range for surveillance and mitigation that is estimated to cost Minnesota taxpayers nearly $1 million over the next three years.
If CWD is not discovered in wild deer during that time, DNR will focus elsewhere in its fight against the disease. Beltrami County, including Minnesota Deer Permit Area 184, is now the fifth geographic area in the state where wildlife biologists are working to conduct CWD surveillance and mitigation. The campaigns have sometimes involved mandatory testing of hunter-harvested deer and lots of extra hunting to thin respective deer populations.
According to the DNR, infected captive herds have spread CWD to wild deer in other parts of the state. In addition, the Board of Animal Health — the agency in charge of regulating deer farms and elk farms — has tracked the unintentional movement of CWD from farm to farm on repeated occasions. At the heart of the problem is that infected deer can appear healthy in the early stages of the disease. Testing is not currently available for live animals, only dead ones.
Steve Mortensen is Fish and Wildlife Program Director for Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. He has informed the Board of Animal Health of his concern that the CWD-infected farm could transmit the disease to wild deer. His agency has previously tested for CWD in the local deer population and never detected it, he said.
Mortensen said Minnesota needs new laws to protect wild deer from infections located within captive herds, including farms that raise fenced-in trophy bucks for shooting by paid customers.