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Lou Cornicelli: Aggressive action needed to stop CWD

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Lou Cornicelli of the Minnesota DNR speaks to the crowd at Fillmore Central School in Preston for a presentation on the DNR’s special deer hunt. The hunt will be used to gather 900 deer samples to test for chronic wasting disease.
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As most people know, chronic wasting disease was found near Preston during the 2016 deer season. Since the discovery, we've so far found six CWD-positive deer. Three were shot during the regular season, and three more from the late special hunt.

While we're disappointed with finding the disease, there are signs that the infection may be a recent occurrence and localized to a small area.

First, all six deer seemed to have no symptoms. Second, we've sampled thousands of deer both before and after the discovery and, so far, all of the positive deer were located close together. Finally, thanks in large part to a management strategy that included antler-point restrictions, we have a high percentage of mature bucks in the deer population, which act as a barometer for deer health. The few positives that were detected in our sample also suggests that the infection rate is low.

As an avid deer hunter, I share the concern of deer hunters and other whitetail enthusiasts. I too hunt in southeastern Minnesota, and when I was the big game program leader, I enjoyed spending time in the bluff country at public meetings, working a deer check station in Chatfield and collecting public input on deer regulation changes. A part of my doctoral dissertation was on alternative deer regulations, including the APR, and I was pleased when we were able to offer them in southeast Minnesota.

The CWD discovery was a major setback to me, as well as many others in the Minnesota DNR. As biologists and stewards of the state's natural resources, our lives are centered on the proper management of wildlife. We care about wildlife and those who use these precious resources. But in recent days, questions have arisen regarding the methods that are being used to manage the infection. It's natural to have these questions, and we are happy to have respectful discussions that provide a better understanding.

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Conspiracy theories

I have to admit that I fundamentally don't understand claims such as those suggesting the DNR is anti-deer and would seek to reduce deer populations using CWD as justification. Or that the DNR would use CWD as an excuse to eliminate the APR regulation because "we never liked it in the first place." Regardless, I hope we can stand together and stop CWD from becoming established.

A little bit about the disease. We know males are three times more likely to be infected. In Wisconsin's CWD core, roughly half of mature bucks have the disease. Deer that carry the disease are at a higher risk of hunting and non-hunting mortality. According to recently published scientific studies, the disease will eventually lead to long-term declines in populations.

Those are facts borne out by years of research. If the disease becomes established in Minnesota, it does not bode well for future deer populations. So, while things may appear OK today, they most certainly will not be OK for our children and grandchildren and generations to come.

So what now? I believe it's important that we band together and do what it takes to eliminate this disease. If we have indeed caught it early, then eliminating the disease is possible.

If we take a passive approach, however, and allow the disease to become established, the long-term future of our deer population is in jeopardy. The CWD zone will gradually increase in size, requiring regulations that will be designed to manage for a smaller and younger deer population across a larger area.

It is truly in nobody's best interest to allow the disease to become established.

Trouble in Wisconsin

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I hear from some hunters who say things are fine in Wisconsin, even with CWD established in their population. However, things are not fine in Wisconsin or in any other state that has CWD established. In a recent evaluation of Wisconsin's CWD management, it was determined that "funding limitations and social/political factors influenced the ability for the Department to fully implement the plan and effectively respond to CWD."

That one sentence summarizes the opinions of professionals who do not believe things are fine. And we know there have been impacts to hunters and their enjoyment of the hunt in these states as they observe and are asked to harvest increasing numbers of infected deer.

During the next few years, the Minnesota DNR is going to take action to manage CWD that will be unpopular to some. We understand that. We will be lowering deer populations in the CWD management zone; however, there are no plans to eradicate deer, which would not be possible or remotely feasible, even if that was our goal.

In the short term, we've mostly defined our CWD management zone, which is large enough to determine the extent of the disease but not so large that it impacts more people than necessary. We also banned recreational deer feeding across a larger area than our CWD zone. While you can't limit natural nose-to-nose interactions among deer, we can ban human-induced contact.

While we combat CWD, the APR will be lifted, in-person registration and testing will be mandatory within the CWD management zone, and there will be carcass export restrictions. All of this is intended to not only eliminate the disease locally, but to discourage a new infection elsewhere. If we indeed caught it early, I think we can come out the other side in good shape.

In closing, the public trust doctrine establishes that wildlife is held in trust and managed for the benefit of future generations. DNR staff manage that trust and all citizens are the beneficiaries of that management.

Gifford Pinchot, who is generally accepted as the father of American conservation, said in 1905: "Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."

Those words still ring true today, and it is our hope we can manage for deer populations that are healthy and productive long after everyone reading this article is gone.

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