Warren Sexson, MJLST Staffer
Minnesota is one of the premier states in the Union for chasing whitetails. In 2020, over 470,000 licenses were purchased to harvest deer. As a hunter myself, I understand the importance of protecting Minnesota’s deer herd and habitat. The most concerning threat to whitetail deer in the state is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). CWD alters the central nervous system, similar to “mad cow disease,” causing deer to lose weight, stumble, drool, and behave similarly to an extra on The Walking Dead. It was first discovered in 1967 in Colorado mule deer and is transmissible to other ungulates such as moose, elk, red deer, black-tail deer, Sitka deer, and reindeer. It is 100% fatal in animals it infects and there is no known treatment or vaccine. While it currently poses no threat to humans, Canadian researchers have shown eating the meat from infected animals can infect hungry macaques, prompting the CDC and the World Health Organization to recommend against consumption of CWD positive animals. Luckily, in Minnesota there were only a handful of cases last season. Challenges still remain, however, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the state legislature have tools at their disposal to combat the spread.
The DNR currently has a comprehensive response plan. In order to get a deer hunting license, the hunter has to pick what “zone” he or she will be hunting in. Minnesota is divided up into zones based off of the deer population and geography. Each zone has different guidelines for how many licenses will sell to the public. Some are “limited draw,” meaning a lottery system where only a certain number of applicants are selected, others are “over-the-counter,” meaning anyone who wants a license in that unit may buy one. Within the zoning system, the DNR has three “CWD Zone” classifications that restrict harvesting deer depending on the risks of the disease—surveillance, control, and management zones. Surveillance zones are where CWD has been found in captive deer or in wild deer in an adjacent zone. Control zones border the management zones, and management zones take up most of the south-eastern portion of the state, where CWD is highly concentrated. The restrictions in each type of zone vary, with surveillance zones being the least restricted and management zones being the most. Hunters have a key role in slowing the spread of CWD. Reducing deer populations in CWD ridden areas helps to reduce contact among deer and lower infection rates. However, there are other ways to further Minnesota’s commitment to slowing the spread of CWD.
The DNR can use emergency actions; it has done so recently. In October of 2021, the DNR temporarily banned moving farmed deer into and within the state through emergency action. Farmed deer (deer raised in captivity for use in trophy hunting) are a main vector of transmission for CWD. The ban was lifted in December but could have lasted longer. The DNR has emergency authority under Minn. Stat. § 84.027 Subd. 13(b) and (g). By enacting emergency declarations, the DNR can continue to use proven measures to slow the spread: requiring testing in high risk areas, banning movement between deer farms, increasing legal limits, and requiring hunters who desire a big buck to first harvest does in so called “Earn-a-Buck” programs. But, such emergency authority can only be 18 months at the longest. While limited in time, emergency orders provide the DNR the flexibility it needs to combat the disease’s spread.
The agency could also attempt to regulate by standard rulemaking authority as laid out in Chapter 14 of Minnesota’s statutes. The agency likely has authority to regulate deer hunting rules relating to CWD and recently has gained concurrent authority over deer farms along with the Board of Animal Health. However, if the DNR attempted to ban deer farming or imposed severe regulatory requirements, industry and interest groups would likely respond with legal challenges to the rulemaking process. In previous attempts to severely restrict deer farms, the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association has filed lawsuits attempting to block restrictions.
While the DNR likely can regulate deer hunting to slow the spread, the legislature is the best option for stopping deer farming as a whole. It is not necessarily a one-sided issue; a bi-partisan coalition of hunters and environmentalistswish to see the practice banned. State Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL) who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finances and Policy Committee has discussed ending the practice and buying out all existing operators. Craig Engwall, head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has additionally called for such a ban. State legislation would be the most comprehensive way to slow the spread of CWD.
State legislators should also consider funding more research for potential vaccines and treatments for CWD. Funding is beginning to pick up; Canadian researchers have begun working on potential vaccines. Additionally, Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-WI) bill, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act passed the House of Representatives with Bipartisan support and awaits a vote in the Senate. While this is encouraging, more can be done to support scientific research and protect deer herds. If Minnesota wants to lead the United States in solving such a global issue, the bipartisan support exists to help tackle the largest threat to deer hunting in the U.S. and the state.
CWD threatens the state’s large and historic deer hunting tradition. The DNR and the state legislature have the tools at their disposal to impose meaningful reform to combat the spread of “zombie-deer,” so the population can thrive for generations to come.