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Testing -- now or later?

DNR has plan, but hunters want action

By Eric Atherton

eatherton@postbulletin.com

A debate is building among Minnesota's deer hunters: Should the Department of Natural Resources kill and test deer for chronic wasting disease (CWD) right now, or wait until this fall's hunting season?

There are no easy answers. Last year, the DNR tested approximately 55 deer for chronic wasting disease (CWD). None of the results came back positive, but the DNR is planning a dramatic increase in testing during the 2002 deer hunt.

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Meanwhile, Wisconsin is one week into its attempt to eradicate deer in a 361-square-mile CWD "hot zone" west of Madison. This step was taken after three hunter-killed deer tested positive for CWD last winter, and then more than 500 additional deer were killed and tested for CWD early this spring. Fifteen tested positive.

To Chris DePerno, deer project leader for Minnesota's farmland zone, the above facts put Wisconsin at least two large steps beyond what Minnesota should be doing right now in response to CWD.

"We're developing our monitoring plan, and that's the first step," DePerno said. "Then, if you find the disease, you move on to phase two, which is to determine your infection rate."

Work in progress

Mike DonCarlos, wildlife research manager with the DNR, said the plans for this fall's testing program are progressing, but are still incomplete.

"We're fairly far along in setting our goals for hunter harvest collection and determining the sample areas, and we're starting to work on logistics," he said. "Our goal will be to get a certain number of samples from certain specified areas."

Testing for CWD requires examination of a deer's brain, and the process of removing, preserving and testing a sample is complex and expensive.

Although the Minnesota DNR is not actively participating in Wisconsin's eradication and testing efforts, officials are watching and learning from Wisconsin's experience.

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DonCarlos said that, because of southeast Minnesota's proximity to the problem area in Wisconsin, it will be of special interest. "It's not going to be the only area, but we're going to be looking closely."

Some southeast Minnesota deer hunters, however, have a different view of what DNR officials should be doing, and when they should be doing it.

Dave Kolbert, 49, has hunted deer for 20 years and is a board member of Bluffland Whitetails Association, a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to "support advances in white-tailed deer management through education, research and cooperative action."

Kolbert is one of many hunters in the southeast region who think waiting until November to begin an aggressive sampling program will leave hunters in a quandary this fall.

"Every hunter I've talked with about this believes that testing should begin immediately," Kolbert said. "Hunters want and deserve some sense of what to expect before heading into the woods this fall."

Dr. Greg Poland, a Rochester deer hunter and infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic, sees other reasons for faster action.

"You can eliminate the disease, if you cull the herd early on when it's at low prevalence," he said. "What I see us doing in Minnesota is, we're waiting. We're waiting to see what happens in Wisconsin."

Lynn Steinbrink, an elk rancher and deer hunter from Chatfield, sees one potential financial windfall for Minnesota, but only if the DNR begins testing its deer immediately.

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"If we shot and tested 100 deer from this region and found no CWD, think about how many Wisconsin hunters would be coming over here and buying licenses next fall," he said. "It would probably more than make up for the cost of the testing."

No easy answers

The DNR's situation is a difficult one: No one wants to kill deer needlessly, but hunters are looking to the state's scientists and wildlife managers for information about CWD and the threat it presents to the deer herd.

Unfortunately, little is understood about the disease, how it spreads and how to eradicate it once it infects deer in a given area. Its gestation time is also unknown, so hunters won't be able to simply look at a deer this fall and be certain it is not infected with CWD.

Despite these concerns, there will be plenty of hunters, including Jeff Soma, 59, of Harmony, who won't change the way they hunt deer this fall.

Soma, after 41 years of hunting, sees no reason to change, even if an infected deer were found in Minnesota.

"CWD would not stop me from hunting, nor would it keep me from consuming venison," he said. "I would be much more concerned on the ultimate effect on the deer herd itself. Some testing possibly should be done, but I would guess time-wise that the fall 2002 season would be as quick as it could be implemented."

Still, Soma said he is concerned about the threat to a sport he's enjoyed for more than four decades.

"I think CWD has the potential to be very devastating to the entire deer herd in the United States," he said. "I hope some type of control measures will be in place before it spreads."

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