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On cusp of deer hunting season, state officials look to save CWD effort from the trash

One piece of an aggressive DNR strategy to slow chronic wasting disease in deer, the dumpster program is now in flux. 

deer dumpster
Minnesota DNR
A dumpster provided by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources shown near a quartering shed donated by Bluffland Whitetails Association near Preston.
The City of St. Paul is not the only government in Minnesota facing headaches over trash these days.

The state Department of Natural Resources is scrambling to keep its new “adopt-a-dumpster” program afloat for the upcoming deer hunting season after Waste Management said last week it would not haul carcasses to landfills as a way to combat chronic wasting disease (CWD). 

The company had originally agreed to move many of the dumpsters, only to reverse course last week, saying it was a risk to transport animals that are potentially infected with the contagious brain affliction. The DNR initiative was created by the Legislature earlier this year as a way to encourage the safe disposal of dead deer. 

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The dumpsters are one piece of an aggressive DNR strategy to slow CWD, which can affect other cervids like elk and moose, but has not spread to humans. The dumpster program is now in flux even as the DNR hopes to ramp up its anti-disease efforts. More than 450,000 people are expected to participate in the state’s deer hunt this year, many over the opening weekend for traditional firearms that begins Saturday.

“We’re pretty much left to scramble to try to figure out how we’re going to manage this program from here on,” Bryan Lueth, the DNR’s lead for the dumpster initiative, told a panel of state lawmakers last week.

New restrictions for hunting season

CWD is not an epidemic in Minnesota. Only 54 wild deer have tested positive for the disease since 2002, most in southeast Minnesota, along with animals at several captive deer farms. By comparison, Wisconsin has had thousands of deer test positive for CWD. 

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State officials want to keep the disease from spilling across the border, harming a lucrative deer hunting industry and potentially threatening human health. Researchers at the University of Minnesota contend it’s possible CWD could jump to humans as the similar mad cow disease did.

A deer that tested positive in February in near Brainerd has particularly worried state officials and some legislators that CWD could spread farther across Minnesota. The Legislature this year approved $4.7 million to combat the disease through increased DNR monitoring and another $1.8 million for new testing research. 

For the 2019 fall hunt, the DNR is touting even stricter rules for hunters in management zones aimed at quarantining CWD. Hunters can’t bring whole deer carcasses outside of certain protected areas, and testing for CWD inside those zones is mandatory. People are also banned from feeding deer in 24 counties to limit contact between the animals. But catch limits have also been relaxed in areas known to have the disease to thin out the deer population since CWD is contagious.

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In archery and muzzleloader hunting seasons, which are already under way, and a finished youth hunt, two deer have tested positive for CWD, and another suspected case is being investigated. All were in southeast Minnesota.

Michelle Carstensen, a DNR wildlife health program supervisor, estimated at least 300 agency staff are helping with deer hunting season and CWD surveillance this year, plus another 350 contracted college students. So far, in the run-up to firearm season, the DNR has tested more than 1,500 samples in southeast Minnesota and another 700 in its north-central management zone, she said. “It’s an all hands on deck effort,” Carstensen told reporters on Monday.

Saving the dumpster program

The dumpster program cost just $50,000, with the idea of putting waste bins at 26 sites throughout the CWD zones for hunters to butcher their deer and toss leftover carcasses where the state could haul them to landfills considered safe for animals that may have the disease.

Many hunters dispose of remains either in the woods or in the trash at home, and if a deer tests positive that infectious material can pose a risk to other deer if not handled properly. 

Lueth, the DNR official, said the state contracted with Waste Management to haul most of the dumpsters. Last Monday, the company backed out altogether, leaving the state without haulers in north-central Minnesota and at several sites in the southeast.

Since then, the state has received some new bids for the open sites from other vendors and has revisited other bids that originally cost more, Carstensen said. As a last resort, she added the DNR could rent some trailers that could be hauled by state vehicles.

Still, Carstensen said the DNR may not have people to haul the 26 dumpsters they had hoped to operate during the firearm season. “I’m not sure if we’re gonna make 26,” Carstensen said. “If we can get to 20 that’d be pretty good coverage.”

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville DFLer who sponsored the bill creating the dumpster program, said Monday the last-minute turnaround from Waste Management was “frustrating,” but also highlights the seriousness of CWD. The abnormal, self-replicating proteins that cause the disease, known as prions, are extraordinarily tough to kill and can contaminate everything from soil to butchering utensils.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, a Breezy Point Republican, said at the hearing last week that a meat processing business she has used “for years” no longer takes deer because of the risk of infecting equipment.

Becker-Finn said Minnesota is at a “critical point” waiting for scientific advances from the U and would like to see state regulation that “lean(s) more towards being aggressive” to slow the spread of CWD. “We need to hold things at bay as best we can until we have more answers and better strategies” to contain the disease, she said.