A special deer hunt has identified another local deer with chronic wasting disease, providing further confirmation that a growing threat to deer health has made its way to the region.
All deer to have tested positive for CWD have been in the southern Dakota County area, but the boundaries of the new South Metro CWD Management Zone, or District 605, slice through the heart of Rice County, dramatically altering pre-existing hunting boundaries.
Everything north of Hwy. 60 from Kenyon to Faribault and northwest of Hwys. 11 and 21 from Faribault to Montgomery is included in the new zone, which covers most of Dakota and Scott counties and parts of Le Sueur and Goodhue counties as well.
Most of Le Sueur and Goodhue counties along with part of Steele County are included in Districts 292, 293 and 341, which are CWD Surveillance Areas. Those areas have not had a deer test positive for CWD even though about 2,000 deer have been tested, according to Keller.
Unlike CWD Management Areas or CWD Control Zones, CWD Surveillance Areas do not offer additional hunting opportunities. However, hunters are asked to donate their deer for sampling so as to ensure that the disease has not spread. A region can be downgraded out of CWD Management Area Designation after three consecutive years with no positive tests for CWD. The latest positive test will again serve to reset the clock.
The deer which tested positive for CWD was one of 168 within the South Metro CWD Management Zone voluntarily donated for testing by hunters following the special hunts from Dec. 26 to 27 and Jan. 2 to 3.
With additional hunting opportunities come responsibilities. Strict carcass restrictions have been put into effect, given the risk of spreading the disease by disposing of infected carcasses in a non-infected area.
To stay in line with those restrictions, testing facilities as well as dumpsters are available. Mandatory testing has been scrapped due to the pandemic, but it’s encouraged and hunters are only allowed to transport a carcass out of the area if the carcass tests negative for CWD.
In total, more than 3,500 deer from the South Metro CWD Management Zone were tested by the DNR over the course of 2020, and five were identified as CWD-positive. The first tested positive for the disease posthumously on March 13.
The DNR’s Barb Keller said that most of the deer identified have been in the vicinity of Dakota County’s Chub Lake, which has an adjacent Wildlife Management Area. In order to be safe, a CWD Management Zone generally covers most land within a 15 mile radius of positives.
Keller said that the specific boundaries of District 605 were based on the DNR’s study of deer movements, using data gathered by collaring deer. However, they also tend to follow boundaries that are identifiable to people, such as Hwy. 60.
Another two deer with CWD were identified during the extended hunting season this November. While most firearm seasons have traditionally lasted just one week, this year’s lasted two in District 605, from Nov. 7 to 15 and Nov. 21 to 29. The relaxation on hunting restrictions is designed to reduce the size of local herds, thus limiting possibilities for transmission. In the long term of course, that policy will lead to fewer and younger deer in the wild, as compared to an entirely healthy area.
While she believes the number of infected deer in 605 and Minnesota as a whole is still extremely low, Keller said it would very much be best to keep it that way. CWD has ravaged deer populations in the U.S. and Canada where it has been able to easily spread.
Along with neighboring parts of Iowa and Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota is among the most disease ridden areas in North America. Everything south and east of Kasson is included in a CWD Management Zone and another zone is in effect in the Brainerd area.
With robust support from area landowners and hunters, Keller said it may well be possible to nip the disease in the bud before it becomes widespread. She said that eradication has been achieved successfully in a handful of locales.
In Olmsted County, for example, a wild deer was discovered in close proximity to an CWD-positive captive elk facility. Aggressive surveillance policies were implemented to reduce the spread of the disease and no further cases were detected.
However, successful eradication is rare and extremely difficult. Deer are social animals and the disease spreads easily, and symptoms can take 1.5 to 3 years to manifest, leaving the deer plenty of time to spread it while feeling seemingly healthy. Once the symptoms do hit, CWD is always fatal and no known treatment or vaccine has been discovered. According to the CDC, it’s not known to be linked to any neurological disease in humans, but the organization still urges hunters not to consume meat from an infected animal.
If the disease reaches widespread levels, as has occurred in southeast Minnesota, eradication may no longer be possible. In that case, the strategy changes from outright eradication to disease management and containment.
Local hunter Nathan Cram said he’s glad to see the DNR keeping an eye on the issue but is not terribly concerned given the small number of documented infections. One strategy he doesn’t agree with is culling herds.
“I don’t agree with trying to do a complete eradication to contain the disease,” he said.