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Hundreds crowd gym in Preston to hear DNR's deer details

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More than 800 people filled the gym at Fillmore Central School in Preston for a presentation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on its special deer hunt. The hunt will be used to gather 900 deer samples to test for chronic wasting disease.

PRESTON — About 800 people crammed into the Fillmore Central High School gym Thursday to hear details from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the special deer hunt planned to deal with chronic wasting disease.

Two deer shot near Preston in November were found to be infected with CWD, an always-fatal neurological disorder that is similar to mad-cow disease but isn't known to affect humans.

Robert Lawstuen, who lives about four miles north of Preston, said he attende the meeting to get more details on the DNR's plans for the hunt, which will run from Dec. 31 to Jan. 15. "If it'll help, good," he said of the DNR's plans. "If it's not going to do anything, it's a waste of time. We don't know that yet."

The goal for the special deer hunt is to harvest enough animals to sample and test 900 adult deer, aged one-and-a-half years old and older, said Lou Cornicelli, a DNR wildlife research manager. That, he said, will likely affect the local deer population. "There will likely be a 20 to 25 percent reduction in the deer population," he said.

The exact impact will not be known until after the aerial survey, which started Tuesday and should be completed by Saturday, is finished, Cornicelli said. At that point, the DNR will have a better idea of the deer population in the newly designated Deer Permit Area 603, which covers 370 square miles through most of Fillmore County and a small sliver of Olmsted County.

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The DNR plans were made in response to a pair of deer -- shot by different hunters on separate weekends -- that were found to have CWD.

"We hope that we're on the front end of the infection," said Michelle Carstensen, with the DNR. "We want to act fact and be aggressive moving on this." By being proactive, she said, the DNR hopes to reduce the transmission risk for deer and manage any potential outbreak.

Minnesota has had three recorded cases of CWD. The last case in the wild in the region was in Pine Island in 2010, she said. In the Pine Island case, about 5,000 deer were tested over a three-year period in a 300-square-mile area. Only the original doe ever tested positive for CWD, she said.

The 900 deer to be tested through the upcoming special hunt will give the DNR a chance to do another assessment and gauge the prevalence of CWD. "If we get through this 900 and it's zero, it doesn't mean we'll do 900 again next year," Carstensen said. "In fact, I would say why would we bother. We just let the hunters themselves remove deer and continue monitoring."

Still, any time there is a health issue with deer, said Denis Quarberg, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, it is going to affect deer hunters. "The plan is to take 900 adult deer out of here," he said. "That's going to increase the amount of take, which is going to end up taking more deer off the landscape and stop some of the recreational hunting that goes on in the area."

With fewer deer, landowners who sell deer leases on their land will be affected as well, he said. That can be seen in Colorado and Wyoming, where CWD was first found and has reduced the deer density to extremely low numbers, Quarberg said. "How many hunters are you going to have going out for nine days and not seeing a deer," he said. "Because that is the very potential of what is there."

Cornicelli repeated Carstensen's call that eliminating CWD from Southeast Minnesota would require aggressive and swift action. "This is not a department problem, this is an all-of-us problem," he said. "We have to work together to do this."

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