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Fillmore County reverses course in battle against deer disease

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Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $4.6 million to help stop the spread of chronic wasting disease in Minnesota.
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Last week, the Fillmore County Board didn’t just refuse the Minnesota DNR’s request to allow federal sharpshooters to kill deer on county-owned land near the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery. The board also told the DNR to stop asking.

Their resolution stated there was "no reason for the DNR to attend a future meeting" of the county board.

On Tuesday, the board reversed that position and authorized sharpshooters to work near the cemetery — but not on it — as part of the ongoing effort to eliminate or at least slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Despite the board’s earlier "unvitation," DNR conservation officer Mitch Boyum attended Tuesday’s meeting and explained that more than half of the CWD-positive deer found in southeastern Minnesota have been killed within one mile of the veterans cemetery.

"It would be different if we were talking five miles away, six miles away, but we’re not," Boyum said. "We’re talking right here in the heart of ground zero of the disease. It’s pretty concerning to the wildlife health folks, so we ask you to reconsider your decision."

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Recent helicopter surveys of the area revealed a herd of more than 100 deer that until now has been largely inaccessible to both recreational hunters and federal sharpshooters.

Concerned citizen Bonita Underbakke said Fillmore County can’t afford to simply pretend the problem will go away on its own.

"It makes sense that Minnesota does not allow discharge of firearms upon or over grounds of any public or private cemetery," she told the board. "But it also makes sense to consider the predictable result of transforming our veterans cemetery into a preserve for diseased deer to multiply and spread CWD."

Also speaking during the public comment period was John Zanmiller, a member of Bluffland Whitetails Association who emphasized that deer hunting has a huge impact on Fillmore County’s economy.

"There’s a lot of orange that comes over that hill in early November every year," he said. "If CWD continues to grow without aggressive action, we’ll see impact at our hotels, our taxidermy shops, our sporting goods shops and even our diners."

He also pointed out the county’s tax base could suffer if the disease continues to spread, stating recreational property declines in value by 15 percent in CWD-infected areas.

"If a large class of property in your county loses 15 percent of its value, that translates into a real amount of revenue from tax-assessed properties," Zanmiller said. "That’s going to have to be reallocated to other people, entities and properties."

Board chairman Duane Bakke came to the meeting with a resolution in hand, ready to reverse the previous week’s decision. He also told the board and spectators he had communicated with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, which gave the board the green light to do whatever is necessary on and around the cemetery.

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"If we made a decision different than we made last week, they would not be opposed to that," he said. "They recognize that the area the DNR feels they can control the spread is in that area next to the cemetery. They would prefer to have CWD eliminated, because if not, it will continue to be a yearly issue for them to deal with on their property, also. They recognize that and basically accept whatever decision we make."

The final vote to allow sharpshooters on county land was 3-1, with District 1 Commissioner Mitch Lentz opposed. He expressed frustrations about the county’s past dealing with the DNR, and also said shooting deer near the cemetery won’t explain why chronic wasting disease is so prevalent there.

"Instead of just getting rid of them, why not use them for research and determine what is going on here?" he asked. "If 50 percent of the issue of CWD is right here, why? Use the data, instead of eliminating it so there’s no more data."

The board’s decision will allow sharpshooters to begin work immediately, with an end date of March 29. Two USDA employees attended the meeting and explained that most shooting is done at night, over bait, using night-vision technology, suppressors and nontoxic bullets. All deer are processed, and once they test negative, the venison is distributed to needy families in the area.

Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Minnesota DNR, welcomed the board’s decision.

"We appreciate the board’s willingness to hear this issue, and we thank them for letting us work through the end of March," he said. "We’ll also be happy to meet with them and go over all we know about CWD."

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