Mix of funding, policy ideas in Minnesota reflect rising concerns about chronic wasting disease

March 21, 2019

Chronic wasting disease already is a problem in the 24 states (including all but Indiana and Ohio in the Midwest) and two Canadian provinces where it has been detected in free-ranging deer, elk or moose.

This year in Minnesota, though, legislators have been exploring just how much bigger the problem could become — if the disease continues to spread and/or if it is transmitted to humans.

“It has the potential to change hunting as we know it,” Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen says. “As a hunter, I am concerned about field processing and consumption of deer, and other hunters should be too.”

No human is known to have gotten ill from eating venison from a CWD deer, but that might not always be the case, a state expert warned lawmakers at a legislative hearing earlier this year in Minnesota.

“It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said at the hearing. He added that “it is possible that the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events.”

Early in 2019, Minnesota’s governor and legislators were proposing a more aggressive response to CWD. Gov. Tim Walz wants to invest $4.57 million during the next biennium, and then $1.1 million annually in subsequent years, to enhance the state’s surveillance of CWD, response and enforcement activities, and outreach to landowners. His proposal came in the wake of news that the disease appeared to be spreading in Minnesota; it was found for the first time in a wild deer outside of the state’s southeastern region.

Along with Walz’s funding request, the Legislature is considering a number of bills that, if passed, would make Minnesota a test site for CWD control. These measures would appropriate new general-fund dollars (rather than relying solely on hunting fees) to the fight against the disease — for example, investing in research that leads to on-site tests and early detection. Some lawmakers also want to require double fencing of farmed deer and the depopulation of farmed herds at facilities where the disease has been found.

No actions to date have been shown to eliminate CWD in free-ranging wildlife, but the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies has identified best-management practices. Many of these practices are in place in parts of the Midwest. For example:

  • Illinois has an extensive surveillance program to examine hunter-harvested deer and elk.
  • Wisconsin has an “Adopt-a-Dumpster” program to promote the safe disposal of deer carcasses.
  • Minnesota prohibits the import of whole deer carcasses from anywhere in North America.
  • Wisconsin depopulated at least four herds of captive deer at farms with CWD in 2018, while other facilities were quarantined. (Prior to 2013, Wisconsin depopulated all facilities where CWD was detected.)
  • Minnesota holds special hunts to reduce the density of animals in CWD areas.

Last year, the Midwestern Legislative Conference passed a resolution supporting congressional legislation on research and funding for CWD. Bills are once again under consideration this year in the U.S. Congress. Though federal funding on CWD is currently lacking, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does have a voluntary Herd Certification Program, which encourages the owners of farmed deer to comply with standards such as fencing, individual animal IDs, and the testing of animals over the age of 12 months that die for any reason. All Midwestern states participate in this program.