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Eric Atherton | Auditor's report puts BAH, deer farmers on hot seat

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A recent auditor's report has put BAH, deer farmers on the hot seat.
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For years, as I reported on Minnesota’s battle against chronic wasting disease, my primary contact with the Board of Animal Health was Assistant Director Paul Anderson.

The BAH regulates Minnesota’s deer and elk farms, and Anderson’s answers to my questions were maddeningly consistent. Over and over, he told me the BAH had reliable inventories of every animal on every deer and elk farm in the state. He told me escapes were extremely rare, and that when they did happen, the animals seldom ventured far and were quickly recovered. And, most importantly, he assured me CWD testing was mandatory for any captive deer or elk more than 12 months old that died on captivity or was butchered.

Anderson retired last year, much to the delight of deer hunters who believed the BAH had far too cozy a relationship with the deer and elk farmers it is supposed to regulate.

And now we finally know the real truth — or something much closer to the truth — about the BAH’s oversight of Minnesota’s 398 cervidae farms.

Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor on Friday released a 51-page report that should be required reading for anyone who cares about the health of our state’s wild deer herd. Their audit of the BAH and its regulation of deer and elk farms revealed:

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• From 2014-2017, the BAH had no process for comparing the number of tissue samples submitted for CWD testing to the actual number of deer and elk that died on cervidae farms in Minnesota.

In that time period, the auditor estimates 31 percent to 38 percent of deer and elk farms failed to submit required tissue samples from dead animals.

• Deer and elk farmers are allowed to remove and submit tissue samples without the assistance or supervision of a veterinarian. In 2017, 11 percent of samples submitted were unreadable.

• A deer farm in Winona County that was depopulated in 2017 due to an outbreak of CWD was found to have fences much lower than the mandatory eight-foot height, and the farm owner admitted that the fences had been sagging for years — yet for the previous 10 years, BAH inspectors had declared the farm’s fencing to be fully compliant. The auditor’s report declares, "the situation calls into question the accuracy of the inspection reports in BAH’s database and the integrity of its inspection process in general."

I could go on and on, but my favorite "smoking gun" is something that’s peppered throughout the report. Since last year’s April announcement that BAH would be audited, the agency’s field staff have become much more diligent and thorough in their inspections of deer farms and elk farms. Reports of inventory inaccuracies jumped from 15 in 2016 to 65 last year. More fencing violations were discovered. Reports of inadequate ear-tagging tripled.

Granted, it’s human nature for people to work harder when they know they’re being inspected, but the auditor’s report included the following statement: "The former assistant director responsible for the deer and elk program (Anderson) ran the program from the early 2000s until he retired in June 2017. The new assistant director with responsibility for the program has implemented a number of changes to the board’s oversight of deer and elk farms since assuming her position."

Make no mistake — this is good news. With Dr. Beth Thompson in charge, the BAH appears to be moving in the right direction regarding its oversight of cervidae farms. Inspections are becoming more rigorous. Records are being scrutinized more carefully Farmers who’ve turned in bad samples for CWD testing will be retrained. Financial penalties for noncompliance will become more common, and perhaps even more substantial.

But I doubt these signs of progress will appease the deer hunters who for years have been demanding better oversight of deer and elk farms. We might never know whether southeast Minnesota’s CWD outbreak in wild deer originated on a deer farm, but the auditor’s report will do nothing to discourage people from blaming the deer farmers.

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My conclusion? It’s great that the BAH is trying to close the barn door on Minnesota’s farmed cervidae industry, but it appears that the door had been wide open for years. Heaven knows how big a price Minnesota will pay for that sloppiness.

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