DNR wants to ban deer feeding, tighten rules on importing meat
Larry Oakes and Doug Smith
Star Tribune

Published Aug 24, 2002 DEER24

GRAND RAPIDS, MINN. -- To guard against chronic wasting disease, state wildlife managers want to ban deer feeding and to prohibit hunters from bringing whole carcasses into Minnesota from other states, the Department of Natural Resources announced Friday.

The proposals are part of a plan to try to prevent the fatal deer and elk brain disease from entering the state and to minimize its spread if it comes here or already has arrived.

"We are very concerned about its potential impact on deer hunting and deer herd management," said DNR Commissioner Alan Garber. If approved by the Legislature, the plan could take effect in 2003.

Feeding encourages deer to congregate at feeding stations, where an infected deer could infect others, possibly through saliva.

While officials don't know whether infected carcasses from other states could transmit the disease to live deer here, they said they don't want to take the chance. Butchered, packaged venison, antlers and hides still would be allowed in under the proposal.

Meanwhile, scientists and wildlife managers agreed Friday at a conference in Grand Rapids that while aggressive measures are warranted, equally aggressive education is needed to quash rumors and assure Minnesotans that humans have little to fear from the disease.

Each speaker at the daylong conference stressed that not once since chronic wasting disease was discovered in 1967 in Colorado has it been known to infect humans, cattle or other species besides deer and elk. The gathering, attended by 250 people, was sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Since its discovery, the disease has been detected in South Dakota, Wisconsin, some Western states and Canada.

"In a lot of ways this is a media-driven disease," said Terry Kreeger, an expert on the disease for the Game and Fish Department in the state of Wyoming, where deer and elk herds have harbored the disease for 20 years. "They keep alluding to this being a human disease, and it's not. There appears to be a species barrier to the transmission of this disease."

Fred Strand, a wildlife manager for the state of Wisconsin, which is spending millions this year to test hunter-killed deer and eradicate a portion of its herd, agreed that all evidence indicates the risk to humans is tiny.

"Hundreds died in auto accidents last year in Wisconsin, and no one died of chronic wasting disease," Strand said. "I have a greater risk of having a fatal injury getting out of bed in the morning."

Hunter precautions

Because scientists can't guarantee the disease won't ever infect humans, and because transmission of the disease could hurt Minnesota's deer herd and hunting, experts at the conference recommended that hunters and processors take these precautions:

• Don't shoot emaciated or listless deer, and report the sighting to the DNR, which will try to kill and test the animal.

• Wear gloves while gutting a deer. Avoid contact with the brain, spinal cord, tonsils, spleen and eyeballs, and remove as many lymph nodes as possible (they resemble cooked scallops).

• Debone the meat and avoid mixing venison from multiple deer to make sausage and hamburger. Don't process deer and other animals at the same time, and disinfect equipment after processing.

• It's still safe to remove a portion of the skull plate while removing antlers.

• Wash hands after handling a carcass.

Minnesota DNR officials also are asking for cooperation this fall as 80 employees fan out to registration stations to ask hunters for the heads of as many as 5,000 deer, for brain samples and testing. Hunters can decline the request.

The DNR is proposing a $1 increase on deer hunting licenses to help pay for its efforts to fight the disease.

Feeding ban's impact

Officials don't know how many Minnesotans feed deer, nor do they know the economic impact of the practice. But deer feeding is common in many areas and likely involves thousands statewide.

Many feed stores outstate sell large quantities of deer feed.

"During severe winters many tons a day will go out of here for deer feeding," said Brad Bunge, co-owner of the Carlton, Minn., Feed Mill, southwest of Duluth.

His store sells 50-and 100-pound bags of deer feed -- a blend of corn, sunflower seeds, molasses and apple flavoring. A statewide feeding ban "obviously would be an economic loss to us," he said, though he wasn't sure how significant the loss would be to his business.

"It's a big source of income for country elevators selling salt blocks and grain for deer," said Carroll Henderson, head of the DNR's nongame wildlife program. "It's a very big business. There are lots of people who enjoy attracting wildlife to their yards."

Mechanical deer-feeding devices are sold, and other feeds are aimed at boosting antler production.

Henderson said it's critical that the legislation not inadvertently affect those who put out food for birds. Apparently, at least one person who did that has been cited in Wisconsin, where an emergency deer-feeding ban has been imposed.

Legislators likely will hear from their deer-feeding constituents.

While much feeding is done for recreation or wildlife viewing, officials say other feeding likely is done by hunters to ensure that deer are in their areas when the fall season opens.

Hunters can't legally "bait" deer in Minnesota, but they can hunt in an area where the deer have been fed, as long as the feed is removed before the hunting occurs.

The announcement of the feeding-ban proposal also signifies how sharply views have changed on the feeding of deer in light of chronic wasting disease.

Six years ago, deer hunters persuaded the Legislature to impose a 50-cent surcharge on each deer license sold to fund an emergency feeding program to help deer survive during especially brutal winters. The DNR argued that it would be costly, unnecessary and ineffective.

Because of recent mild winters, the money never has been used and has grown to about $1.4 million.

Last session, at the urging of the Deer Hunters Association, the law was changed to allow the DNR to use the feeding fund for chronic wasting disease management. About $200,000 was appropriated for 2003. The surcharge continues to be collected.

Gary Wolfe, head of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a national coalition of sportsmen's groups dedicated to fighting the disease, told conferees he's impressed with the action Minnesota is taking.

"You're much better prepared than most states in the country -- even some states where it already has been identified," he said.

-- Larry Oakes is at loakes@startribune.com;Doug Smith is atdsmith@startribune.com

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