MOORHEAD, Minn. -- A new law gives the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources authority to inspect farms where deer are raised, a fundamental change at a time when deer herds, wild and tame, are threatened by an always-fatal disease.
The reason those inspections are a contentious issue is that chronic wasting disease has often spread when infected farmed deer are moved around the state. Previously, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health handled inspections, as the agency in charge of protecting the health of domesticated animals.
The Department of Natural Resources manages wild animal populations and has occasionally clashed with the state animal health board over the management of chronic wasting disease.
"Somebody with a DNR shirt (will be) part of annual inspections on farms and operations and so we can identify those things that we think are risks to white-tailed deer — and see that they get fixed,” said Dave Olfelt, director of the DNR’s fish and wildlife division.
Olfelt said the DNR and the Board of Animal Health have different priorities concerning the operation of 174 farms that raise white-tailed deer in captivity.
“The condition of a fence, for example, I think it's fair to say that the producer and we might see that risk slightly differently,” said Olfelt.
“Another thing might be where a producer feeds the deer inside the fence. We've seen an example where there are big hopper feeders for deer right inside the fence and the seed is landing on the ground. It's actually bouncing through the fence and attracting wild deer. That's creating a risk that’s pretty easily mitigated. Those are the examples of the kinds of things we would be looking for.”
An outbreak of the neurological disease on a farm in Beltrami County earlier this year sparked an outcry because it marked a significant spread of the disease to northern Minnesota and posed an expanded risk to wild white tailed deer.
The disease had been primarily contained to southeastern Minnesota.
After the Beltrami County outbreak, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen used her emergency powers to impose a temporary ban on the movement of farmed deer, even though the agency did not have regulatory authority over those farms.
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, has been an outspoken critic of the Board of Animal Health.
She's pleased the DNR now has increased authority to inspect deer farms, but she worries the law language will cause confusion. Both agencies have equal authority.
"Let's say the DNR says, ‘We need to hit the pause button on any deer movement for a certain amount of time,’ and then what happens if the Board of Animal Health thinks that isn't necessary, because they're kind of coming at this problem from different priority viewpoints?" Becker-Finn said.
A Board of Animal Health spokesperson said it’s too early in the process to comment on the law change, but the agency will work with the DNR on a shared oversight agreement.
The DNR’s Olfelt said discussions are already underway to create a memorandum of understanding with the board.
“It's pretty high stakes here for our agency, as well as the board, to do this well,” said Olfelt. “So I think that's where our focus is right now. We're both in the hot seat over this, and so we're committed to making it work."
It's unclear when an agreement between the two agencies will be finalized.
The Minnesota Deer Farmers Association declined to comment on the DNR's new authority until the agencies have worked out details of the agreement, but an official said there "are concerns about how the agencies will divide their responsibilities."
Olfelt said he wants to be clear that the DNR will not try to shut down the farmed deer industry.
Recently a group of about two dozen DFL state lawmakers called on the president of the Board of Animal Health to resign, saying the management of chronic wasting disease has let down the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who hunt deer.
Reached through a spokesperson, Board of Animal Health President Dean Compart said he has no plans to leave the position.
The two agencies must report back to the legislature by early next year on how they are working together and provide additional recommendations for managing the spread of chronic wasting disease.