BRAINERD, Minn. — Crow Wing County wants to stop the spread of a deadly deer-related disease in its tracks with a free deer carcass-incineration program that is the first of its kind in the state of Minnesota.
County officials are encouraging residents and visitors during the hunting season to bring deer carcasses to the county landfill to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease, or CWD.
“Our goal is to continuously spread the word between now and the gun deer season opener on Nov. 9, so that hunters bring their deer to the landfill for disposal rather than throwing them back on the landscape, which has the potential to accelerate the spread of CWD,” said Ryan Simonson, a county environmental services supervisor.
The neurological disease affects the cervid family — deer, elk, moose, reindeer and caribou — and causes degeneration in the brain of an infected animal, which culminates in their death.
It is spread when one of these animals comes into contact with defective proteins from an infected animal, such as saliva or other bodily fluids, which are known to survive in the soil for many years.
“CWD was found here in Crow Wing County on Jan. 23 for the first time in a wild deer, and it was just located less than a half mile from a deer farm that had positive CWD deer … so that kind of got the lights blinking of, ‘We need to do something here,’” Simonson said.
While there is no evidence humans can contract the disease from deer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not eating meat from a known positive animal.
“Luckily, we only had one (wild) deer in the county, so hopefully we caught it early. The next three or four years will be critical,” said Doug Morris, solid waste coordinator for the county.
At least eight deer farms in the state have tested positive for the disease since 2002, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which prompted surveillance efforts in wild deer across the state.
The county has met with the DNR, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and several local businesses to better understand the disease and to be more proactive to contain the spread.
“We actually have a Dumpster set up — we keep it super clean — we wrap the deer carcass in plastic and we put it into another one, so we’re keeping the smell down … for the hunters who bring them in,” said Marvin Stroschein, manager of the county landfill east of Brainerd, 15732 Highway 210.
The carcasses from the Dumpster are then taken to a container at another site at the landfill and are incinerated at more than 2,000 degrees in a rectangular container filled more than half full with logs — pine at the bottom, and oak and birch on top — and a bed of coals until ash remains.
“The DNR originally purchased this back, I think, in 2002 when they first found CWD in Minnesota — this was kind of their plan back then. They never used it much for burning deer, but they were nice enough to donate it to us, since they weren’t using it,” Simonson said.
Stroschein said, “We tried to put the burner in the far corner of the landfill where a lot of people don’t pass it or go by it.”
Due to the discovery of the fatal disease in a wild deer in the county, the DNR designated a new CWD management zone in the Brainerd area — deer permit area 604 — for the 2019 hunting season. CWD sampling is mandatory for all deer harvested in the management zone.
“It’s about a 15-mile radius of where they found the positive wild deer, and that’s where they’re going to do mandatory testing for hunters this fall,” Simonson said. “A mature buck is going to be most likely infected because they roam much more than does.”
The disease was initially discovered in Minnesota on an elk farm in Olmsted County in 2002, and the first infected wild deer was discovered eight years later, according to the DNR. By the time a deer appears sick, which can take many months or years, it may have affected others.
“One of the main ways that CWD is spread is by carcasses that are left on the landscape,” Simonson said. “The less deer that we have from hunters that are thrown back on the landscape the better.”
The abnormal proteins that cause the disease are highly resistant to disinfectants, heat or freezing, according to the DNR, and cooking will not kill the disease for which there is no vaccine or treatment.
“Deer carcasses may be incinerated or placed in strategic locations within the landfill to minimize disposal risk, so it is very important that carcasses are brought in separately from other garbage,” Simonson said.
County officials urge residents to test the deer they shoot in the county for CWD prior to consuming the meat from the animal and encourage hunters to use latex gloves when field dressing and handling deer carcasses and deer meat.
“If hunters don’t dispose of their deer properly, the disease could spread and then that could hurt hunting opportunities in the future,” Simonson said of deer hunting, which generates almost $500 million of economic activity annually in Minnesota, according to the DNR.
The DNR has tested more than 60,000 wild deer in the state since 2002. Besides the wild deer in Olmsted and Crow Wing counties that tested positive for CWD, 17 wild deer in Fillmore County tested positive for the disease from 2016-17, according to the DNR.
“In this zone 604, which is pretty much the top two-thirds of the county, if you kill a deer, you’re not just supposed to take it out of the county,” said Fred Doran, an engineer working with the county. “You have to quarter it and put the remains — the DNR has stations set up around the county for putting the remains in.”
County officials are also urging residents not to feed the local deer population in the coming winter. The DNR has a deer feeding ban enacted for Crow Wing County. Residents may report sick deer to the local conservation officer or DNA area wildlife office.
Chronic wasting disease was first identified in the United States in 1967 where it was diagnosed in a captive mule deer at a research facility in Colorado. Since then, CWD has spread to 25 states, two Canadian provinces, the Republic of Korea, Finland and Norway.
How to properly handle deer
Wear rubber gloves while processing or butchering the deer.
Bone out meat from the animal.
Minimize handling of brain and spinal tissue.
Wash hands thoroughly after handling the carcass.
Avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes.
Consider having the deer processed and wrapped individually.
To prevent wanton waste, process and store the deer as normal.
Signs of a CWD-positive deer
Weight loss; emaciation.
Excessive drooling and salivation.
Loss of fear of humans.
Loss of body control, tremors or staggering.
Drooping head or ears.
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources