4 April 2022
Minnesota lawmakers will try to block new captive deer farms from opening in an attempt to stop or slow the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the House have proposed moratoriums on new whitetail farms, which have been hotbeds for the always-fatal CWD — a neurological disease caused by a disordered protein called a prion.
But it’s unclear how much support they will have in the Senate to enact a full-fledged ban, as lawmakers weigh the risk that trophy game farms pose to the state’s beloved wild deer, moose and elk herds.
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, said he understands the stress that deer farm owners have been under as CWD — and state-imposed regulations to fight it — upend their businesses.
“But our wild whitetail deer could be facing the same thing, and that’s what I’ve been working on — making sure we save that industry,” he said.
There are about 150 deer and elk farms in Minnesota, down from 400 in 2005. The animals are commonly bred or genetically modified to produce giant bucks for clients to shoot inside the fenced enclosure of a farm. Some raise the animals commercially for venison and to produce deer attractants for hunters, among other uses.
CWD, first discovered in Minnesota on an elk farm in 2002, has been spreading throughout the state. The prion — a misfolded protein that eventually destroys the animal’s brain — spreads from deer to deer both directly, when they touch, and indirectly, when a healthy animal comes across infected soil or food.
The quickest way it travels is when infected deer — or deer carcasses — are driven across the state by game farmers or hunters. Over the last five years CWD has been found in wild deer in Fillmore, Dakota and Polk counties and in seven captive deer farms, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The DNR and Minnesota Board of Animal Health recently finished a study of 50 deer farms and found substantial violations of CWD rules at about one-third of them, including inadequate fencing and failure to submit samples of dead deer for testing.
In northern Minnesota, taxpayers have spent about $200,000 clearing trees in a public forest and putting up a fence around a site where the owner of a now defunct and CWD-infected farm dumped carcasses.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL- South St. Paul, first proposed a ban on new deer farms. Current owners would be allowed to keep their operations and pass them down one time to immediate family. The ban would also adopt several recommendations from the DNR such as strengthening fencing, testing and reporting requirements.
It would prohibit farms from buying deer or deer semen from any state or Canadian province where CWD has been detected. It would also make deer farm owners liable for any cleanup and monitoring costs from escaped deer that could spread CWD to the wild.
“Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars cleaning up the mess of CWD,” Hansen said. “The public has borne the cost for those that have not been able to maintain their fences, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”
Deer farm owners and their supporters say they are being unfairly blamed for the spread of a disease that can now be found in every part of the Upper Midwest. Each time the DNR has imposed restrictions, halting the movement of deer on game farms, it essentially put those farms out of business, said Tim Spreck, representative of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, to lawmakers last month.
“These are family farmers who have been financially injured through no fault of their own because of the heavy hand of government,” he said.
Steve Porter, owner of Porter Whitetails in Lake Bronson, Minn., testified to lawmakers that he had been forced to break contracts and back out of sports shows.
“Our business has been taken away from us,” Porter said. “My bank account has been robbed. We don’t know where to turn.”
The stress of owning a deer farm in Minnesota has become unbelievable, said Steve Uchytil, owner of Crow River Whitetails in Kandiyohi County.
“It’s impossible to run a business if you can’t sell your products. It’s impossible to run a farm if you can’t sell your crops,” he said.
Rep. John Burkel, R-Badger, said he would like the state to compensate deer farmers for their losses related to movement restrictions.
“Whatever our personal views are on deer farms at the moment, it’s incumbent upon us to alleviate some of this financial pressure that the state of Minnesota and the DNR forced these small farms to endure,” he said.
Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said he would offer deer farmers a buyout — the potential cost of which is unclear.
“This is just a starting point but we need to have this conversation,” Heintzeman said. “There are a lot of difficulties that deer farmers are facing in Minnesota and maybe [a buyout] is the best option for those folks if they so choose.”