Commissioners reverse decision to ban CWD culling on county land, near veterans cemetery

By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

Last Tuesday, March 5, Fillmore County Commissioners reversed action, with a 3-1 vote, taken during the Tuesday, Feb. 26, meeting to prohibit the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from using sharpshooters to remove chronic wasting disease (CWD) infected deer from county farmland adjacent to the state veterans’ cemetery. The vote also reversed its decision to prohibit DNR officers from retrieving carcasses after taking deer on the property from the state-owned bike trail and its decision to refuse DNR from providing further discussion on the matter at upcoming meetings.

The county has maintained, for quite some time, a policy stating that no hunting will be permitted on county farmland surrounding the veterans’ cemetery, in deference to the interment services being carried out at the cemetery.

However, the DNR has discovered that the deer inhabiting the county grounds and those belonging to the state cemetery have a high concentration of CWD. There is an opportunity to act in efforts to contain CWD’s spread and therefore caused the commissioners to reconsider their stance on the issue.

Holt Township resident Bonita Underbakke took her place to be the first to implore the board to reconsider its Feb. 26 determination. She urged the commissioners to review the results of a DNR study and aerial deer survey that would allow the DNR to “create the most effective strategy” for mitigating CWD in the deer that reside within the county farm and veterans’ cemetery boundaries.

“Minnesota does not allow the discharge of firearms in public or private cemeteries…but it does not make sense, allowing the veterans’ cemetery to become a sanctuary for diseased deer,” she said.

Underbakke noted that the deer would be baited with corn and that night vision technology would be employed to help the sharpshooters find their mark while “emphasizing the safety of humans.”

“They would not be shooting in the vicinity of the burial sites,” Underbakke added. “Humans made the rule not to allow (hunting or use of firearms to pursue deer), and humans can make the exception to the rule.”

She concluded by asking that the commissioners set forth a timely response at the beginning of the outbreak as a means of containing it.

In response, Commissioner Duane Bakke informed her that the county has no authority over the state veterans’ cemetery and therefore cannot advocate for selective removal of deer on that property.

Underbakke stated she understood that and her statements regarding the cemetery were made based on conversations held with officials after the Feb. 26 meeting from which she took to mean the boundaries included the cemetery.

Chatfield resident George Spangler took a seat before the commissioners next, introducing himself as a retired professor of fisheries and wildlife with a specialization in population dynamics of fish and wildlife. He relayed statistics that cite CWD has been found in 25 states in the United States and in several regions of Canada. He stated it is thought to be the result of prions infecting the deer and it is “invariably fatal, is transmissible by direct contact, through food, urine and blood contact. He stressed that if contact between infected and non-infected deer is to be prevented, something has to be done.

Spangler outlined that prions do not often — but can — cross species to infect other species, such as Kreutzfeld-Jacob Disease, a “horrifying variant of a prion disease.”

He added, “After two cows were found in the United Kingdom to have a prion disease, or bovine spongiform encephalitis, nearly four million cattle were exterminated to try to eliminate the disease.”

Spangler went on to outline that if CWD-infected deer carcasses are allowed to decompose in the open after a deer escapes to an area where the DNR does not have permission to enter and retrieve carcasses, those carcasses are potentially exposed to scavenger birds and animals that can then deposit the prions in other places.

He also said he felt the statement that the Minnesota DNR had no further need to attend county board meetings that addressed animal control left open the questions that the public has and closed communication between the county and the DNR.

As Spangler concluded, he suggested a public hearing be held. “Fortunately, there’s still time to act,” he said, “with the cold and snow, the aggregation of deer (remains). I urge you to rescind the action.”

John Zanmiller of the Bluffland Whitetails organization approached the board after Spangler, explaining that he wanted to bring a different perspective to the conversation.

“If CWD is not addressed at the local level, it will be devastating at the state level,” he said. “One of the things that has not been brought up is the economic impact that CWD has. There’s a lot of orange over the hill in November, and we see a lot of business in our hotels, at taxidermies…recreational property values have gone down. We’ve seen a 15 percent decline in value of properties where CWD has been found, and if a property loses 15 percent of its value, it’s going to have to be reallocated somewhere else. I urge you to reconsider your action and to work with the DNR on responsible action on county-owned land adjacent to the state veterans’ cemetery.”

State conservation officer Mitch Boyum came before the commissioners after Zanmiller, offering to answer any of the board’s and gallery’s questions. He informed the board that the main reason the DNR has sought the county’s approval to shoot deer on the county farm is that the state bike trail is approximately 90 feet wide, meaning it’s close to private properties and also used as a ski trail during the winter.

“Over 50 percent of the CWD deer are within a mile of the county property, and that effectively makes it a refuge for CWD,” Boyum said. “We’re talking about the heart and ground zero for this disease. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) folks, the sharpshooters who are doing this, are professionals and know the ins and outs of doing this in a professional manner. You may not agree 100 percent with the statistics, but I feel that we’ve got to listen to the wildlife experts and go with the best plan…I want to get a bridge between the DNR and the county.”

Bakke stated he had been contacted by state DNR representatives who clarified the narrative surrounding the DNR’s purpose and who can shoot. However, Bakke said he had told the representatives that the board had already taken action and the seemingly-settled matter required no DNR attendance at upcoming meetings.

“I had someone from the Minnesota Department of Veterans’ Affairs who said that they would not object to shooting deer on the land,” Bakke continued. “I do have an email from the deputy of veterans’ affairs that says that the department respects the board’s decision, but that if we made a decision that’s different than the one we made last week, they would not be opposed. They prefer to have the deer eliminated, or it will always continue to be a yearly issue on their property.”

Bakke referred to a map supplied to him showing the Feb. 27 location of a deer population suspected to be infected, as well as a map of a concentration of infected herds in Wisconsin — where CWD was first detected and where the state has determined that nature should take its course.

He then introduced a resolution he had drafted earlier in the morning before arriving at the courthouse, and he distributed it to the rest of the board for their consideration as an amendment to the agenda.

It read, “Whereas the spread of CWD will have a negative effect on the health of deer in Fillmore County and a decrease in hunting opportunities and lower numbers of hunters will have a negative economic effect in Fillmore County, and whereas DNR research and maps created from that research show the area known as the county farm as being within the epicenter of confirmed positive tests for CWD in harvested deer, and whereas the DNR and USDA have a disease management plan in place as an attempt to stop the spread of CWD and this action is not considered to be hunting, and whereas the Fillmore County board has a general hunting ban in place on the county farm as a means to provide a buffer for the Preston veterans’ cemetery that will remain in place, therefore be it resolved that the Fillmore County Board authorize access to only field numbers 8 and 9, and said access shall be other means and not through other county land which includes field 5, 7 and 12, for the purpose of disease control for the time frame of March 13, 2019, at 12 a.m. to the period of March 29, 2019. at 11:59 p.m. The DNR shall provide an annual report of the status of CWD to the county board and any subsequent access requests for 2020 or beyond must come before the county board for discussion and possible approval, with no pre-approved promises made.”

Dahl inquired about the venison that comes from the deer taken from county land and whether it would be donated to the county food shelf.

Zanmiller commented that once it has been tested and cleared, it can be donated to people who have signed up for it and that the majority of the meat stays in the local area.

Dahl then wanted to know if the sharpshooters aim for a deer’s head to finish it off quickly and whether copper or lead ammunition is used, because his role on the SEMCAC board had brought him in contact with people worried about lead contamination in their venison.

USDA representative Tim White countered that the shooters target the neck and high shoulder and use copper ammunition to keep the deer clean of lead.

Discussion then turned toward the baiting practices that the USDA and DNR use, as corn spread on the ground left the possibility that an infected deer could infect other deer with its saliva.

White said the bait is put in tubs and replaced after a deer is culled, and culled deer are taken to the University of Minnesota where carcasses are chemically digested after being tested and diagnosed. “Every deer is tested,” he added.

Commissioner Mitch Lentz questioned, “Why won’t the DNR hunt on its own land?”

Boyum answered, “I think the biggest concern…if they jump across the fence (from the bike trail), they’ll be on private or county ground, and it’s best to get permission from the landowner…it’s easier to try to get deer to come to land than try to get them to come to the bike trail.”

Lentz and Dahl commented on the existence of communication challenges in the county’s relationship with the DNR, and Boyum responded by telling the board that the DNR’s forestry office is open and he’d like to answer any questions commissioners or the public may have about CWD. “We want people to know what the other hand is doing,” he added.

The USDA representatives then outlined that sharpshooters would send one person at a time to target specific deer and immediately retrieve the carcasses if it was allowed, and that once a carcass has been retrieved, it is pulled out of sight so other infected deer will not find it near the corn stand.

Lentz reiterated that he feels the county’s interactions with the DNR have not been positive and the DNR should return to report on its progress after deer are removed.

“We’ve got a lot of knowledge here,” Lentz said. “If we’ve identified that 50 percent of the deer in that area are infected, why? What’s causing that? It’s not fixing anything, but getting rid of things. It’s just going to have 50 percent of the infected deer tomorrow.”

Boyum replied, “The question is, ‘What can we do?’ The situation here so far is that we can lower the population, but right now, there is not a cure for CWD.”

USDA wildlife biologist Duane Sahr requested that shooters be allowed on the land as soon as possible. “The sooner we can get the bait out, the better,” Sahr said.

Lentz replied, “I still don’t comprehend why it can’t be done on your property and deer retrieved.”

Dahl wanted to know if the USDA and DNR are coordinating with the sheriff’s department, and Sheriff John DeGeorge indicated that they have in the past and the operations are “seamless.” His deputies are made aware before the removal begins and there are few reports from residents about hearing gunshots at night. “We get very few to no calls, and we do have a very good relationship with Mitch (Boyum). He used to be one of our deputies,” DeGeorge said.

Lentz registered his objections, remarking, “If this is an epidemic, then declare it — once it’s declared an epidemic, people will support it. Once it’s declared, you own it…use it.”

Bakke then called for an amendment to the agenda to allow the addition of his resolution, seconded by Commissioner Marc Prestby. The vote passed with Lentz opposed, after which a correction was added to the resolution to adjust the start date of sharpshooting to March 5 and to acknowledge that the state veterans’ cemetery buffer would be involved.

The vote was taken and passed, with Lentz asserting his opposition, and Dahl concluded, “I’ve had just as many calls for this as against it.”