GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - Chronic wasting disease is front and center in the minds of deer hunters and conservation groups across the country, and that was apparent Saturday, Feb. 23, during the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s annual meeting in Grand Rapids,.

MDHA members from across the state voted in favor of several legislative initiatives to help protect Minnesota’s wild deer herd from the brain disease that’s fatal to deer, elk and moose, said Craig Engwall, MDHA executive director.

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Until recently, CWD in Minnesota wild deer had been limited to the southeast part of the state, where more than 40 deer now have tested positive for the disease. That all changed last month, when an adult doe found dead Jan. 23 near Merrifield, Minn., in Crow Wing County tested positive for the disease.

CWD previously had been found in captive deer in Crow Wing County within a half mile of the recent finding, but the adult doe was a first for wild deer in the area.

“I think Crow Wing was an absolute wakeup call for everybody because a lot of our membership hunts up north or lives up north, and having it be so far away from that southeast corner of the state really brings it home,” Engwall, of Dora Lake, Minn., said in a phone interview.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has proposed new funding of $4.57 million over the next two fiscal years and $1.1 million annually thereafter to combat chronic wasting disease, the DNR said. MDHA last weekend called on the governor and Legislature to agree to support and implement a number of key initiatives this year to fight CWD, including:

  • Requiring double fencing on all captive cervid farms.
  • Mandatory depopulation of all cervids on farms with a CWD-positive test.
  • Moratorium on any new cervid farms and a voluntary buyout of existing cervid farms.
  • Prohibition of interstate movement of both captive and wild cervids.
  • Prohibition of interstate movement of any captive cervid byproducts including blood and semen.
  • Elimination of antler point restrictions statewide.
  • Dedication of an additional 50 cents of current deer license fees to wild deer health, bringing the total from each deer license to $1.

“With the discovery of a single CWD-positive wild deer within a half-mile of a CWD-infected captive cervid farm in Crow Wing County as well as the 40 plus wild deer testing CWD-positive in southeast Minnesota, it is imperative that Minnesota act now to protect its wild deer herd,” Engwall said. “CWD threatens not only Minnesota’s deer and deer hunting tradition, it threatens the nearly $1 billion economic impact that deer hunting contributes to Minnesota.”

The issue takes on added urgency with recent media reports suggesting a link between CWD-infected deer and the potential for transmission to humans who eat the meat. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said during testimony before the Minnesota Legislature that “it is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

A headline and story in USA Today referred to CWD as “zombie” deer disease, and Engwall said MDHA is concerned about the potential for hysteria scaring people away from hunting.

“If you scare people away from hunting, there are a lot of ripple effects from that since hunters are a key part of management, whether it’s forest management or crop depredation or the fact that basically, the (DNR) Fish and Wildlife Division’s budget is carried by angling and deer hunting,” Engwall said. “If you have a significant reduction in deer hunters because of unnecessary hysteria, that would be an issue.”

To stem that fear, MDHA supports the idea of developing quick field tests for hunters to test their deer and be confident it doesn’t have CWD, he said.

“Where I live, I’m not concerned,” Engwall said. “But if I lived in the southeast, you bet I’d have my deer tested even if I didn’t have to.”

Besides resolutions related to CWD, MDHA members last weekend also passed the following resolutions at their annual meeting:

  • Support the use of leashed blood tracking canines for deer recovery.
  • Change the current size limitation on expandable broadheads from 2 inches to 2¾ inches.
  • Allow portable stands on WMAs beyond the day-use limitation.
  • Support return of the all-season buck license.
  • Allow deer hunters to use ATVs on public roads where already legal without a time restriction during hunting season.
  • Change the minimum age of special youth hunts from 12 to 10 years of age; change maximum age for youth hunts from under 16 to under 18. This is to make the special hunt regulations consistent with the general hunting laws.

“We’ll see where it all goes,” Engwall said. “We’ll be talking with senators and representatives and go from there.”