BY SCOTT RALL
The Globe outdoors columnist
Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal disease in the white-tail deer populations of North America. I could go into a long explanation of how it progresses, but I won’t because you would fall asleep before you finished this column.
I will give you a few of the basics.
It is transmitted from direct deer-to-deer contact. Once you have wild deer infected with it, you cannot eliminate it. You can only hope to control it so it does not become widespread. The elements of the disease can live in the soil for many years.
So what is the big deal if CWD is present in the deer herd and it kills a certain percentage of the population every year? The answer is a lot. Deer hunting is a $750-million-dollar business in Minnesota with $1.3 billion in spin off revenues, and it additionally supports more than 12,000 jobs.
Right now, there is no link between deer/human transmission, but all of the biology says that a person should never knowingly eat a deer tested positive with CWD. This is what we know now, but who can say that with more science that a direct effect to humans is not possible?
Chronic wasting disease can move slowly across a landscape as deer come in contact with one another. What we have seen in the recent past is that the disease has jumped or leap-frogged great distances within very short periods of time. In some cases, almost overnight.
How does this happen?
One potential cause could be deer farms. Businesses that raise deer and other large mammals like elk buy and sell animals and haul them all over North America. It has been proven that some of these farms have animals affected by CWD.
The big difference between CWD and other animal diseases is how they are handled. If a turkey farm is shown to have the bird flu, they kill and destroy every single turkey on the site.
If a deer farm has a CWD-infected animal they are quarantined, but there is no requirement to kill all of the animals.
The sportsmen and sportswomen are now the primary funders of trying to keep CWD in check. The DNR spends more than $150,000 directly on surveillance of deer farms known to have CWD. This does not include any of the other money the department spends to test and process a cross-section of the deer harvested every year.
The funds come from the game and fish fund, which uses license revenues as its funding source. It has been this way since CWD was first found in the state.
If Minnesota generates a little north of $2 billion from the activity of deer hunting in the state, then why is the hunter the only one who pays to try to preserve the state’s deer herd and the hunting economy and traditions that result from it? Not fair at all, in my opinion.
The 2019 Legislature is now for the first time getting into the act. There are multiple related bills, but a few of the ones that I think are going to get the best traction include a bill to voluntarily buy out captive deer herds in the state.
Some captive deer herds are known to have CWD issues. Others do a good job, but as in any industry there are a few bad apples. With the deer herd in Minnesota at stake, we cannot even afford a few bad apples.
There is a bill being floated that would spend money from the general fund to help with surveillance and emergency response. And there is another one that would remove the Minnesota Department of Animal Health as the agency in charge of CWD enforcement and oversight. It would make the Department of Natural Resources the lead dog in the CWD fight.
I think this change is 100 years overdue. The DNR finds the problems and has no power to do anything about them as we sit today.
This issue is huge, and some steps can be taken to help. But each of those steps is fought with resistance at every turn.
One change would be to make deer feeding illegal. Artificial feeding gets large numbers of deer in close proximity to each other, thus increasing the potential for disease transmission between individual animals.
Another would be to require deer farms to have double fencing. This, some think, is too tough a requirement. I think if a tree branch falls on a fence and infected deer can then easily escape, a double fence is not too much to ask.
This is going to be a big issue in state government this year. If you care about the state’s deer herd and about the state’s economy that it supports, you need to follow the issue with great tenacity. There has never been a bigger issue with a greater potential disaster than CWD run amuck. Now is the time for everyone to stand and say doing something about this threat.