All clear.

That's the final word from the so-called "CWD Zone" around Pine Island.

Michelle Carstensen was ecstatic Tuesday when she learned none of the 979 deer tested during the 2013 season had tested positive for chronic wasting disease. "All negative, baby. Woo-hoo!", said the Department of Natural Resources wildlife health program director. "Our work down there has come to a conclusion — and a successful one."

Results from the last nine deer came in this week. With negative tests from about 5,000 deer since the winter of 2011, there's a better than 99 percent confidence that CWD is not in more than one half of 1 percent of the deer herd in the special zone around Pine Island.

What does this mean?

• It means the special 602 zone, which was in effect for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 hunting seasons, is history. The area will go back to its normal zones this fall.

• It will mean the deer feeding ban, put into effect three years ago, expires March 1 for Dodge, Olmsted, Goodhue and Wabasha counties.

• And it means she and other DNR wildlife officials will be able to concentrate on other things besides CWD this fall.

But it doesn't mean the DNR will stop keeping an eye out for the disease that is always fatal to deer, said Don Nelson, area DNR wildlife supervisor in Rochester. The DNR will continue checking any deer acting strangely or having any indication of CWD. With Wisconsin and its heavy CWD infestations so close, Minnesota can never let down its guard, he said.

"We're not out of the woods yet," he said.

The DNR began an intensive look for CWD after an old doe shot by a bow hunter in late 2010 near Pine Island was tested in early 2011 and found to have CWD. That winter, landowners and those they allowed on their land were allowed and encouraged to shoot deer so they could be tested; any deer killed by a vehicle in the large zone that centered around Pine Island was also tested.

In the next three hunting seasons, the DNR established a special zone that allowed hunters to take many deer. This allowed the DNR to test more animals — and to cull the herd, thus reducing the chances of any more being infected by contact with an infected deer. All feeding of deer was banned so deer wouldn't concentrate.

If a deer had tested positive and the DNR had to keep up its intensive testing programs, the region could be at risk for "CWD fatigue" similar to what is settling into Wisconsin, Carstensen said. In that state, hunters are pretty much ignoring CWD and any testing. It's now just a fact of life.

All the testing was a headache for hunters who couldn't take a deer out of the zone until it was tested, Nelson said. Highway departments couldn't pick up road-killed deer because they couldn't be taken out of the zone.

It was also a headache for the DNR, which spent more than $1 million on overtime and other work, Carstensen said. The department has spent nearly $6 million statewide in similar work since 2002 when it did the first surveillance for CWD near a captive elk herd in Aitkin. Bovine tuberculosis found in deer and cattle in northwestern Minnesota also required a big chunk of DNR resources, she said.

Now, for the first time in more than a decade, the DNR doesn't have an active testing area for CWD or bovine TB. "I welcome the break," said said. "I feel good about it."

Nelson said hunters knocked down the herd in the area maybe by 20 percent, but it will recover quickly. "We have learned those deer are pretty productive down here," he said.

One good thing about the CWD testing is that it was a good model in case something similar has to be done again, Nelson said. Cooperation of landowners, hunters and the general public "was just incredible," Nelson said. "We didn't know how the public would react."

When it offered special shooting permits in early 2011, the DNR expected maybe 10 or 20 would ask for them. It gave out more than 300 permits. Businesses at the five check-in stations let the DNR set up places to work and sample, he said.

Of course, people are still asking and wondering: Where did that one deer get the disease? Where did the deer come from? It did appear on a trail camera earlier in the year, so it wasn't just released, and it wasn't a recent arrival

The doe was unusually old, but there was no indication it was from a captive herd, Carstensen said. But CWD doesn't occur spontaneously. "I don't think it came out of the sky," she said.

Not finding another case "is extremely unusual," Nelson agreed. "The odds of probability don't favor that we sampled the only deer that was infected with CWD. It just doesn't make sense that we got it all."

Reporter John Weiss has covered the outdoors for the Post-Bulletin for more than 37 years. If you have a comment or story idea, call John at 507-285-7749.