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Our View: Deer disease deserves federal policies — and funding

November 30, 2018

Kelsie LaSharr and Lou Cornicelli of the Minnesota DNR were among many researchers who worked at deer sampling stations throughout southeastern Minnesota during the firearms deer season. Testing is still taking place, but least a half-dozen deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease this fall — and the problem appears to be spreading.

Let it not be said that bipartisanship is dead.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota whose name keeps coming up as a possible presidential candidate, has joined forces with Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, in the effort to stop the nationwide spread of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.

The two senators want the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Interior to expand federal tracking and mapping of CWD, and to establish universal standards for transporting deer across state lines.

We applaud this effort. It’s high time that the federal government took a leadership role against CWD, because deer don’t respect state boundaries. People often refer to “Minnesota’s deer herd,” but deer can roam a long ways, especially during mating season. Earlier this year, researchers captured and put GPS tracking devices on wild deer near Preston — the heart of our region’s CWD “hot zone” — and were stunned by how far some deer traveled in a relatively short time.

But the reality is that the fastest way for a CWD-infected deer to travel great distances and cross state lines is at 70 mph in the back of a hunter’s pickup, or in a trailer as it is hauled from one deer farm to another. The carcass of an infected deer contains prions — mutated proteins — that when dumped in a ditch or woodlot can linger in the soil for years and infect other deer. Furthermore, hunters and wildlife officials have long suspected that the interstate transport of live, captive deer and elk has contributed greatly to the spread of CWD since its discovery in Colorado in 1967.

The irony here is that Klobuchar and Wicker shouldn’t be the ones leading this fight, because the cat is already out of the bag in their home states.

In Minnesota, 18 wild deer have tested positive for CWD far, and the disease has also been found on eight deer/elk farms. The latest round of testing near Preston indicates that the “hot zone” is spreading northwest, so it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that hunters in the Rochester area will soon be required to have all deer tested.

Mississippi is much earlier in its battle, having detected its first three cases of CWD this year, but even the most optimistic wildlife biologists agree that once CWD reaches an area, it’s virtually impossible to eliminate it. The best that can be hoped for is to slow its spread and keep the disease at manageable levels.

So we’d argue that even after eliminating Hawaii and Alaska, there are 46 senators from 23 as-yet-CWD-free states that should be clamoring for federal leadership, with the goal of keeping the disease from ever crossing their borders.

The stakes are high, even if you’re not a deer hunter. Hunting is a $1.3 billion industry in Minnesota, and whitetailed deer are the top game animal pursued by hunters. In Wisconsin, where more than 4,000 infected deer have been found, there has been a 7 percent drop in hunter numbers. A similar decline has happened in the Preston/Lanesboro area.

While there is no evidence that people can contract CWD by handling or eating an infected deer, it’s quite apparent that some hunters are erring on the side of caution. Fewer hunters means more deer-car collisions, more crop losses and fewer tax dollars flowing into state coffers.

So we’d argue that while federal monitoring of the disease and tighter interstate transport rules would help, the government should do more. Infected states need federal dollars as they fight to contain the disease, because at some point, the financial burden will become too great.

This year, Minnesota will spend $1 million to battle CWD. Ultimately, if states have to choose between battling CWD and maintaining their state parks, the odds are they’ll protect their parks. And their trout streams, wetlands, bike trails and forests.

We can’t afford to have any states throw in the towel in this fight. CWD is a national problem, and as such it deserves national policies and national funding.

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