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First wild deer in Northeastern Minnesota tests positive for chronic wasting disease

A wild deer in Grand Rapids was found to have the fatal neurological disease.

Chronic wasting disease deer buck
A white-tailed buck in the final stages of the always-fatal chronic wasting disease. A whitetail doe in Grand Rapids has become the first wild deer in Northeastern Minnesota to test positive for the always fatal disease.
Contributed / Warden Michael Hopper, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism
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GRAND RAPIDS — A wild deer found in the city has tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the always fatal neurological disease that’s spreading across the U.S. and killing deer and elk along the way.

It’s the first wild deer in Northeastern Minnesota to test positive for the disease, spurring the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to activate its CWD response plan for the area.

Kelly Straka, wildlife section manager for the DNR, said the DNR will attempt to test additional deer in the area to see how widespread the disease might be. That likely will include some targeted deer killing in and around where the deer was found.

The DNR also will conduct mandatory testing of deer that hunters shoot this fall in that area.

“We will be planning surveillance during the fall hunting season, definitely, but that’s more than six months from now and we don’t want to wait that long," Straka told the News Tribune. “The immediate response plan is to work with local officials to test some roadkill animals … and work with the public and people in and around Grand Rapids to conduct some localized deer removals — a very targeted, small area around that infected positive that we had.”

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Itasca County already is in a deer feeding ban area and will be added to counties where deer attractants, including deer scents, are not allowed during hunting seasons.

Straka said it’s too soon to say whether the finding means CWD is moving north in Minnesota or if there are other factors causing the disease to pop-up in isolated areas where it hadn’t before been found.

“We don’t know the answer to that," Straka said. "Am I surprised that we got a positive hit in a wild deer in Grand Rapids? Yes. But we don’t know yet if that means more wild deer in the area have CWD. We need to get more monitoring done to figure that out, and we’re already discussing how we get a better look at the statewide picture of where CWD is on the landscape and where we should look for the disease."

Other steps the DNR could take to slow the spread include expanded fall deer hunting in the area, with longer seasons, additional seasons and additional permits for multiple deer per hunter, but only if additional wild deer in that area are confirmed to carry the disease, Straka said. Several of those steps have been used in southeastern Minnesota.

A Grand Rapids resident reported to the DNR in mid-February that an adult doe died in his backyard. DNR staff collected the carcass and submitted a lymph node sample for CWD testing. The DNR received confirmation of the Grand Rapids CWD infection March 15. Results of a full necropsy showed the deer died from a collision with a vehicle, but tested positive for CWD.

An animal must be dead or killed and a tissue sample collected to test for CWD, although the University of Minnesota and other researchers are said to be close to developing a test that is accurate on live animals.

Since 2002, DNR has tested samples from 106,000 wild deer statewide and 153, fewer than 1%, tested positive for CWD. Most of those cases occurred in southeastern Minnesota. But in recent years, wild deer near the Twin Cities and near Brainerd, along with infected deer at deer farms in several areas, indicate the disease is slowly spreading. It’s unclear if that spread is being caused by humans moving infected deer — live deer between farms, carcasses, trophy heads — or if the disease is spreading from deer to deer in the wild, or both.

Only one hunter-shot deer in the area tested positive, but the finding will prolong CWD restrictions.

The DNR said it’s updating its statewide CWD response plan to include new positive test reports, new research and new information. That new plan is likely to include multiple ways to make it easier for hunters to get the deer they shot samples for CWD, including self-service mail-in testing and more drop-off stations for testing.

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“The DNR has taken an aggressive approach to managing CWD in Minnesota,” Sarah Strommen, DNR commissioner, said in a statement. “We will continue this strong approach as we address this latest finding and as we update our statewide CWD response plan. The health of Minnesota’s wild deer herd remains a top priority for the DNR.”

More than 1,800 samples from wild deer shot by hunters were tested in and near an infested Beltrami County deer farm last fall and CWD was not detected in any. The Grand Rapids deer was about 60 miles from that farm. To the west and south of Grand Rapids, near Brainerd, CWD surveillance has been ongoing in this area since 2017. Two wild deer have been tested positive for CWD among the 6,300 deer tested since surveillance began.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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