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Our View: Deer disease should concern all Minnesotans

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Kelsie LaSharr and Lou Cornicelli of the Minnesota DNR were among many researchers who worked at deer sampling stations throughout southeastern Minnesota during the firearms deer season last fall.
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The headlines were disturbing.

"Zombie deer disease spreads across USA." "Will eating ‘zombie deer’ make you a zombie human?" "Experts fear ‘zombie deer disease’ could spread to humans."

About two weeks ago, news services across the country began publishing stories about the nationwide spread of chronic wasting disease in deer. Given our culture’s current obsession the undead, some clever writers latched onto the idea of "zombie deer" roaming the landscape.

Just like that, CWD went mainstream. So frightened were some readers that news services felt compelled to publish follow-up stories to assure suburbanites that they weren’t about to face attacking hordes of slobbering, snarling deer.

But this is no laughing matter, and it’s important that non-hunters understand what’s at stake in the battle against this disease.

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It turns out that the "zombie deer" media frenzy originated in Minnesota. Michael Osterholm, who is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told legislators that the risk of CWD transmission might be small, but it’s very real.

"It is probable that human cases of chronic wasting disease associated with consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead," he said. "It’s possible the number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events."

That’s an aggressive statement, given that there’s no evidence CWD has crossed the species barrier from deer to humans, but Osterholm said it’s a numbers game. Deer hunters and their families are eating anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000 infected deer each year, and that number is rising steadily, given that the disease is spreading across the nation and now infects deer in 25 states.

Osterholm’s dire warnings might be right, but they might be wrong. With more people eating infected deer, one could argue that the risk is increasing — but one could also argue that if tens of thousands of people have eaten tainted venison and suffered no ill effects, that’s proof of a very strong species barrier.

But what we do know is that scientists once thought mad cow disease couldn’t cross the species barrier, yet it did. Mad cow disease and CWD are both caused by prions — an abnormal protein — so there would appear to be at least some degree of risk in eating venison from an infected deer.

Minnesota isn’t at ground zero of this issue, but our neighbors to the east are. Thousands of infected deer have been killed in Wisconsin, and it’s likely that Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of CWD-positive deer that are eaten each year.

If the disease does cross the species barrier into humans, the odds are that Wisconsin will be where it happens.

But more than 40 wild deer have tested positive for CWD in southeastern Minnesota, and the Minnesota DNR is engaged in a no-holds-barred battle to halt its spread. It’s now a two-front war, because in mid-February, the DNR announced that an infected deer had been found near Brainerd, which is the first occurrence in a wild deer in northern Minnesota.

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DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen came to Rochester last week to discuss CWD with hunters, scientists and landowners, and she said that while she was somewhat surprised by Osterholm’s strong statements, she also could see some benefits from them.

"He has raised public awareness of this issue, and he highlighted some of the fears that I have heard from deer hunters about whether venison is safe to eat," she said. "We just need to balance the real concerns and potential impacts of CWD, while not wanting to scare people out of the woods and away from deer hunting."

Gov. Tim Walz joined the battle. His budget proposal includes nearly $5 million in additional funding for the DNR, all of it earmarked for CWD surveillance, testing and eradication. That’s for the next two years, and Walz also wants continuing CWD funding after that of $1.1 million annually.

This would mark the first time that the state’s general fund helped the DNR in what is a crucial battle to save our state’s deer herd, our hunting culture and the economic impact of deer hunting. Right now, CWD-related costs are borne by hunters and anglers who buy licenses.

That needs to change, so we support the governor’s proposal. The health of our state’s wildlife is important to all Minnesotans, so we should all help pay to protect it.

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