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Sharpshooters kill 450 deer in bovine TB area during winter effort

Federal sharpshooters killed 450 deer in their fourth winter of shooting in the core area of a minor bovine tuberculosis outbreak near Skime, Minn., and there's a chance, officials say, that the trained shooters won't be used to target deer next winter.

This year's sharpshooting campaign wrapped up April 30.

According to Michelle Carstensen, wildlife health program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, none of the deer sampled during the sharpshooting showed any clinical signs of bovine TB.

"This is the first sharpshooting project where we haven't picked up some clinically infected deer," Carstensen said. "Hopefully, that means it's a good sign."

Lab results to conclusively rule out bovine TB won't be available for about three months, Carstensen said.

A contagious respiratory disease, bovine TB first was detected in cattle herds near Skime in the summer of 2005, and subsequent testing found the disease in area deer populations. The DNR has sampled more than 2,800 deer since 2005, with 27 testing positive for the disease. All but one of the positive cases came from the core area near Skime; a 3½-year-old buck taken just outside the core during last fall's hunting season was diagnosed with the disease.

Carstensen said the deer taken during the sharpshooting campaign appeared to be in good health, and the meat from all but 15 of the deer was donated to people who requested it. Shooters this year took 189 adult does, 32 yearling does, 67 doe fawns, 81 adult bucks, 18 yearling bucks and 63 buck fawns, Carstensen said.

Carstensen said the goal was to sample 1,500 deer in a larger area beyond the bovine TB core between last fall's hunting seasons and the sharpshooting campaign. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had requested the 1,500-deer sample in parts of Roseau, Marshall, Beltrami and Lake of the Woods counties as part of efforts to restore the TB-free status for cattle producers in the area.

While sharpshooting success improved toward the end of the campaign, Carstensen said the sampling fell short of the USDA's goal by 553 deer.

Carstensen said the DNR now is negotiating with USDA to reduce the sampling goal for next year to 1,000 deer. She said the liberalized hunting regulations and sharpshooting have combined to reduce deer numbers to the point where 1,500 isn't realistic.

It's not official, Carstensen said, but there's also a chance the DNR won't have to hire sharpshooters next winter.

"We're trying to meet the burden of surveillance with hunters instead of sharpshooting," Carstensen said. "We want to have that for a tool more to go in when we find a positive (TB case) and reduce a pocket of deer."

But it will be crucial, she said, that hunters continue to participate in seasons in the core area.

"If there's no pressure in the core, it will be hard to know if we're missing" any cases of TB, Carstensen said. "Our job will be to encourage the hunting public to do a lot of hunting in that area this year and turn samples in and use that method."