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Chronic wasting disease testing creeps into Northland as Minnesota deer opener nears

What you need to know for firearms deer hunting season 2021.

A trophy white-tailed buck. Minnesota firearms deer season in the Northeastern region runs Nov. 6-21. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH -- The scourge of chronic wasting disease continues to creep into the Northland as the 2021 Minnesota firearms deer hunting season approaches, and many hunters will have to get used to a new normal, including having their deer tested in areas where CWD has been found.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is requiring mandatory testing of all adult deer shot over opening weekend in CWD zones as biologists try to get a handle on where and how fast the always-fatal neurological disease is spreading.

After opening weekend, voluntary submissions for deer harvested in any CWD management or control zone will be accepted at self-service stations throughout the hunting season.

“Test results show how prevalent chronic wasting disease is in certain areas, which helps us tailor our management actions to focus on areas where the disease is concentrated,” Erik Hildebrand, DNR wildlife health specialist, said in a statement. “The DNR’s aggressive, risk-based response is based on the best-available science, and hunter-provided samples are a crucial component in helping us monitor the health of our wild deer herd.”

Northland areas where CWD testing is mandatory opening weekend include:


  • To the south, CWD testing is required in management areas 157 and 159 south of Hinckley, and in adjacent 200-numbered units in that region, after a deer at a deer farm tested positive in the area several years ago. That CWD outbreak, while not yet confirmed in the wild, also has triggered a deer feeding ban in surrounding areas, including Carlton County.

  • Near Brainerd, special rules are in place and testing is required in Special Management Area 604 that stretches as far east as Aitkin. Unlike the Pine County case, wild deer have been found infected in this area, although not in the past two years.

  • New this year, in and around the Beltrami County deer farm where an entire herd was destroyed after multiple positive CWD tests in a bizarre case that saw the farmer dump infected carcasses on public land where CWD has now been found in the soil. The zones included in the mandatory testing requirement are 110, 169, 194 and 179 (only areas west of Highway 6, not east of Highway 6) as far east as Deer River. So far, no wild deer have been confirmed infected in that area.

The DNR will staff sampling stations during opening weekend. Self-service sampling station options also will be available for hunters who would prefer to drop off their deer heads rather than having staff take the samples at stations. Sampling stations are located across each area for testing. More details are available at

deer permit areas 2021.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Where in Minnesota will CWD surface next?

The DNR is working with a much larger group of researchers based out of Cornell University to create computer applications to estimate the risk of new CWD introductions in the state and where it would be likely to flourish when introduced.

The DNR has provided Cornell with reams of data on deer harvest and deer density estimates, CWD test results and where CWD has occurred in the past. Other states in the region, including Iowa and Wisconsin, have also contributed data from their states “so we can account for CWD risk from neighboring states also,’’ said Chris Jennelle, a DNR research scientist.


The idea is to use all of the information, along with known information about captive cervid farms in Minnesota, to create estimates of CWD risk.
“We are still in the beta testing phase of these applications, and there are some details yet to be worked out, but this technology is on the horizon,’’ Jennelle said.


CWD keeps spreading

CWD is a fatal neurological disease that affects cervids, including white-tailed deer, elk, moose, reindeer and mule deer, and it’s not likely ever to go away. The subtle, relentless, slow-moving disease has steadily worsened since its initial discovery in a mule deer herd at a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s. It's now been identified in 23 states and three Canadian provinces.

There is no evidence that the disease can spread to humans, although it is similar to some human diseases and health experts warn against consuming venison from a CWD-positive deer.

CWD is caused by a prion, which is a misfolded protein. The prions are shed by infected deer, in urine, feces, blood and saliva — and can remain in the environment for years, maybe longer. Some CWD spread occurs at local levels by deer-to-deer or deer-to-environment-to-deer transmission. But wildlife experts say the disease’s far-flung spread in recent years almost certainly has been caused by humans moving live and dead deer that are infected, both from deer farms and moved by hunters.

article7259141.ece EMBED: Deer hunt MN poll Are you planning to hunt deer in Minnesota this season? Yes No

Anyone can have their deer tested

Hunters who live outside a Minnesota CWD zone can still have your deer tested through the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. But it will cost you $39, and there is currently a delay in testing due to a shortage of materials needed for testing. Go to .

deer harvest by year.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune


Deer spleens needed for pesticide research

Hunters in the Grand Rapids area can be part of an ongoing study on how much neonicotinoid exposure Minnesota deer are getting.

The DNR is continuing research to screen hunter-harvested deer for the presence of neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides worldwide. The sample needed for testing is the spleen. The spleen is large, flat and dark red. It’s attached to the stomach of a deer and easily found while field dressing.

Research shows neonicotinoids in white-tailed deer have caused both behavioral changes and decreased fawn survival. The DNR conducted an initial assessment in fall 2019, finding that 61% of deer tested were exposed to neonicotinoids.

If you hunt in deer permit areas 171, 172 or 179 (as well as several in the 200-numbered management areas), sign up to participate at .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at

Minnesota deer season by the numbers

  • The 2021 Minnesota firearms deer season for Northeastern Minnesota — the 100 series permit areas — runs for 16 days, Nov. 6-21.

  • Shooting hours each day are a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.

  • Minnesota sold about 690,000 deer hunting licenses in 2020, including firearms, muzzleloader, youth and archery. Of those, nearly 500,000 hunters are expected to be afield statewide during the firearms season.

  • The 594,014 firearms licenses sold in 2020 was up 7.4% from 553,277 in 2019 and the most since 2010.

  • Last year, all types of deer hunters registered 197,315 deer, just shy of the DNR's annual harvest goal of 200,000.

  • About half the deer shot during the season are shot opening weekend. This year, that will likely be about 100,000 deer, depending on the weather. (Warmer, drier weather means hunters stay outside longer and shoot more deer.) About 70% of the harvest occurs in the first four days of the season.

  • Adult female white-tailed deer weigh about 145 pounds on average and males weigh about 170 pounds. The biggest white-tailed deer ever recorded in Minnesota was a 500-pound buck.

  • A whitetail's home range is about 1 square mile in forested areas.

  • In 2020, 37.1% of all Minnesota hunters successfully harvested a deer (including archery and muzzleloader), but the success rate was only 26% for the 100-series management areas in Northeastern Minnesota during firearms season.

  • The average hunter spends five days afield during Minnesota's firearms deer season.

  • A legal buck is a deer having at least one antler 3 inches long. Buck fawns, sometimes called button bucks or nubbin' bucks, are not legal bucks.

  • Resident firearms deer licenses are $35 in 2021.

  • Resident hunters 84 years old and older can shoot a deer of either sex in any permit area.

  • A deer license purchased after the opening day of the season is valid starting the next day after it is issued, but not on the day it is issued.

  • Share your stories on social media using #Deer-CampMN.

  • Send photos of big bucks to .

Source: Minnesota DNR

Be safe out there

The DNR reminds hunters to follow the three tenets of safe firearms handling:

  • Treat each firearm as if it is loaded and keep your finger off the trigger.

  • Always control the muzzle of the firearm.

  • Be sure of your target and what is beyond.

  • Tree-stand accidents are the leading cause of injury to hunters, so it's always important to wear a safety harness and unload your gun before going up or down in your stand.

Questions? DNR operators standing by

  • Hunters can find deer hunting information at
  • Hunting season questions can be fielded by the DNR Information Center at 651-296-6157 or 888-646-6367 from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays.
  • To report a violation in progress, call the Turn in Poachers line at 800-652-9093.

Ask DNR deer hunt questions during live webinar

Anyone who has deer hunting questions may register and participate in a virtual DNR deer hunting event from noon-1 p.m. Wednesday. DNR staff will be on hand during "Prepping for Firearms Deer Season" to explain changes in seasons and regulations and to field questions. Registration for the webinar is required at . Participants are encouraged to submit questions when they register. A recording of the webinar will be posted.

Minnesota's firearms deer seasons kicks-off statewide on Nov. 6 and, in the Northeastern region 100-series management areas, runs through Nov. 21. Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

Top 10 Minnesota deer season violations in 2020

As compiled by Minnesota DNR conservation officers

  1. Failure to register
  2. Hunting over bait
  3. Failure to validate tag
  4. Untagged deer
  5. Lend and borrow tags
  6. No license in possession
  7. No blaze orange
  8. Uncased/loaded firearm transportation
  9. CWD area violations
  10. Shooting from the road

Regis ter your deer online, by phone or in person

Hunters who harvest deer, bear or turkey must sign into the Minnesota DNR's electronic license system when registering a harvest at

Deer can also be registered by calling 888-706-6367 or in person at designated registration stations. For a list of those locations, go to .

For more information, go to .

How to tag your deer

Your deer license and site tag comes as a two-part form. The upper half is the site tag for tagging the deer in the field . The lower half is the deer license and registration slip. Hunters must do the following:

  • Detach the site tag from the deer license/registration slip.

  • Before moving the deer, the hunter whose name is on the license validates the tag by using a knife or similar sharp object to cut out the notches indicating the month, date and time of day the deer was killed.

  • Be careful: If more than one month, date or time is cut out or marked, the tag becomes invalid.

A 10-point buck in full rut, neck swollen and taking a break from chasing does. Weather and the progression of the rut will in large part determine how many bucks Minnesota deer hunters shoot this season that starts Nov. 6. Clint Austin/ 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune

More rules

  • Hunters may not take deer with the aid or use of bait.

  • Ensure you are using legal equipment for taking big game. Rifles must be at least .20 caliber or larger and ammunition must have a soft or expanding tip with single projectile (no buckshot).

  • Antlerless deer are considered any deer without an antler at least 3 inches long.

Blaze orange or pink required

All hunters and trappers in the field during an open firearms deer season must display blaze orange or blaze pink on the visible portion of the person's cap and outer clothing above the waist, excluding sleeves and gloves. Blaze-orange or blaze-pink camouflage patterns are allowed, but must be at least 50% blaze orange or pink within each square foot.

United Northern Sportsmen rifle range open all week

The annual United Northern Sportsmen's Club deer rifle sight-in is again open to the public for deer rifle sight-in every day through Friday. Hours are 8 a.m. to a half-hour before sunset.

The cost is $5 for a single rifle range session, or get a full year's membership in the club for $35. For more information, go to .

The rifle range is located on the club's grounds on Island Lake along St. Louis County Highway 4 (7229 Rice Lake Road), about 20 minutes north of Duluth.

What to put in a day pack or fanny pack for deer hunting

  • Sharp knife

  • Headlamp with fresh batteries

  • Thin rope to use as haul line at deer stand, heavier rope and harness for dragging deer out

  • Tree-stand safety harness

  • Compass (know how to use it) and GPS

  • Hunting license

  • Rubber gloves for field dressing deer

  • Toilet paper

  • Small survival kit in quart-size zip-top bag that includes two 50-gallon garbage bags (for emergency shelter), waterproof matches or lighter, whistle and energy bars.

  • Small folding saw for clearing brush

  • Plastic trail-marking tape (for tracking deer in rainy or snowy conditions)

  • Pelvic saw for field dressing deer

  • Water bottle

  • Grunt call

  • Cough drops

  • Cellphone, charged but turned off

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