As Chronic Wasting Disease — a contagious and degenerative brain disease in deer, elk, moose and similar animals — has practically engulfed other states, Minnesota has been relatively unscathed.
Now state lawmakers from both parties are promising to try to keep it that way. House DFLers have unveiled a slate of bills they call a “comprehensive plan” to address the fatal disease, which has been found in isolated pockets of Minnesota but flourishes in some parts of Wisconsin. Republicans have not supported all of the DFL-led legislation, which calls for new research money and regulations, but have also made battling CWD a priority.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville DFLer and an avid deer hunter, noted hunting and fishing is protected in Minnesota’s constitution and said action must be taken to stem an “outbreak” of CWD. While the disease is not known to infect humans — at least so far — health officials warn against eating tainted meat. “The right to hunt doesn’t mean very much if there’s no healthy animals that you can eat,” Becker-Finn told MinnPost.
Spreading to Minnesota
Chronic Wasting Disease was first found in the late 1960s and has now spread to animals in 25 states and three Canadian provinces.
The disease is one of several afflictions believed to stem from abnormal and self-replicating proteins called prions, which can’t easily be killed by disinfectants, heat or cold, and can be harbored even in soil. The most famous prion sickness is mad cow disease, which broke out in Europe in the late 1980s and later spread to humans as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
More than 30 wild deer in Minnesota have tested positive for CWD in the last two years. Most of them were discovered around Preston in the Southeastern part of the state, said Lou Cornicelli, a DNR wildlife research manager, at a recent legislative hearing. The disease has been found on eight elk and deer farms since 2002. But those numbers pale in comparison to Wisconsin, where more than 5,200 wild deer and more than 20 farms have tested positive for CWD since 2002.
But state data show CWD is already a threat to the half-billion dollars deer hunters contribute to Minnesota’s economy each year. Deer licenses in Minnesota dropped 4.6 percent the last two years, but fell as much as 11.5 percent in regions affected by CWD.
Battle over fencing and regulations
DNR has tried to curb the spread of CWD through some voluntary testing, targeted deer hunts and ongoing surveillance in high-risk areas; the agency’s response will cost roughly $1.3 million in the 2019 fiscal year. But the agency says if CWD booms across the state, they won’t be able to pay for managing it without taking money from other programs.
Becker-Finn and others have introduced at least five bills to slow down CWD. Two with bipartisan support would provide money: $1.56 million for DNR to continue its operations and another $1.8 million for the University of Minnesota to develop new and simpler tests for diagnosing CWD. (Although there is some debate over the source of that money.)
But the real controversy surrounds new potential restrictions on deer farms and the Board of Animal Health, which oversees them. Becker-Finn authored a bill that would halt all new deer farms and create a state-funded buyout program for existing white-tailed deer farms. Another bill would require deer and other cervid farms to have two 10-foot high perimeter fences.
“We’re sending the message that this is not an industry that we want there to be expansion of right now,” she said. “We have a disease outbreak.”
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, noted CWD can spread through saliva and other animals that can hop or fly over fences and might prove an unnecessary burden on a money-making industry. Fabian is the top Republican in the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican who chairs a similar committee in the Senate, worried the buy-out program would be expensive and lead other animal farmers to ask for cash amid disease outbreaks.
“It’s a very lucrative businesses for those that are in it,” Ingebrigtsen said of deer farming. He said if the program were voluntary “and the price is within reason,” he could be open to some fencing requirements and buyouts.
Rep. Rick Hansen, the DFLer who chairs the House environmental committee, jabbed at lawmakers opposed to the new requirements in a Twitter post Monday night: “The GOP will protect the captive deer farm industry at all costs.”
The DFL has a majority in the House, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans, meaning neither party can move its agenda without bipartisan agreement.
Becker-Finn has also proposed stripping the Animal Health Board of its oversight duties and giving them to the DNR, which currently regulates wild deer. The legislative auditor’s office released a scathing report on the board in April, saying it was not enforcing some laws and failing to ensure compliance with CWD testing requirements. The report also found the DNR and the health board were fighting: The DNR said data on CWD wasn’t being shared quick enough and the health board accused the DNR of not protecting data when they shared it.
Becker-Finn said ongoing finger pointing was a concern and having split oversight wasn’t an ideal strategy. Ingebrigtsen said the health board has the proper expertise for the job, and said more money would help the agency out.
A cry for help from U researchers
Underpinning the case for fast action to prevent the spread of CWD is fear the disease may some day jump to humans. A group of U of M scientists testified Thursday before Hansen’s committee to urge lawmakers to pay for them to develop faster and easier CWD tests.
Michael Osterholm, the director of the U’s Center for the Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said the stakes are high. Osterholm said he once sat on governmental review panels in Britain when mad cow disease was on the rise and he warned there was a “good likelihood people could be infected.” Many doubted that would happen, but Osterholm was ultimately proven correct.
Osterholm told the panel that some monkeys have been infected with CWD, and other research suggests it’s “probable” there will be human cases in years ahead. “It’s possible,” he added, “the number of human cases will be substantial and not isolated events.”
In order to ward off the specter of a new fatal brain disease in humans, Jeremy Schefers, a pathologist at the U’s veterinary diagnostics lab, said there needs to be widespread testing, which currently isn’t feasible.
The U runs the only CWD testing outfit in the state. Schefers said their process can take up to two weeks for results, and the test can only be done on tissue buried deep in the head of a dead animal. Fast tests that can detect CWD in the field on live animals, feces and urine would be a huge asset to “start fighting back.”
In striking testimony that verged on emotional, Schefers pled with lawmakers to help scientists answer basic questions about the disease. “We need to find infected animals before their death, but we don’t have a test,” he said. “We need to know how other animals move CWD prion around the environment, but we don’t have a test for that.
“We need to know if the local butcher shop is contaminated and if it can be effectively cleaned, but we don’t have a test for that. We need to know if prions move from the soil into plants and potentially are infective, but we don’t have a test for that. … I want to know how much is in the soil and I want to know how much of it takes to infect something, but we don’t have a test for that.
“All hunters need access to a test that can be easily purchased and quickly detect CWD in their deer before it’s cut up into 100 pieces and fed to their family. Those hunters don’t have access to a test.”