Minnesota farms that raise elk and deer for meat or captive hunts could soon face sharp limits from DFL lawmakers concerned about a critical disease risk to wild herds.
Chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological illness, continues to spread in Minnesota. While Republicans in the past have protected the cervid farms, Democrats now have the upper hand in an emotional debate over the existence of the businesses — and their potential impact on Minnesota’s lucrative wild hunting industry.
State Rep. Rick Hansen, a DFLer from South St. Paul, said he will try again to pass a moratorium on new deer farms, among other restrictions, since his party has total control of state government after flipping the Minnesota Senate in the November election. Sen. John Marty, a Roseville Democrat, also said a moratorium should be a starting point for lawmakers.
“When you’re dealing with disease, stopping the bleeding — metaphorically — is what a moratorium does,” said Hansen, who chairs the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee. “A moratorium is the minimum, not the answer.”
“I’m guessing at a minimum not allowing new deer farms and probably more likely phasing them out,” added Marty, who won’t lead an environment committee next year but has been part of DFL efforts to restrict the industry.
Although both Hansen and Marty said it was too early to know exactly what they might propose, or what could pass the Legislature, their ideas will surely spark a major legislative fight at the Capitol, where many Republicans say the deer farms are being wrongly blamed, or at least unfairly treated, and argue the new regulations would cause the demise of an industry that has already taken a hit from government efforts to contain CWD. The Legislature convenes in January.
Minnesota has 229 cervid farms with roughly 6,000 animals, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. Some farms are breeding operations, others have hunting enclosures, others raise elk for meat and still others sell products like velvet, urine or semen. Those 229 farms also include hobby farms where someone might have deer as pets.
Tim Spreck, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association this week said the organization will be “vigilant” and “continue to provide factual information in the event that anything detrimental to our interests would come about in the coming session.”
But he was clear in March, testifying at the Legislature, that a ban on new deer farms would be a threat to the industry as a whole.
“Without new deer farms we would have trouble keeping the businesses functioning,” Spreck said at the time.
Chronic Wasting Disease in Minnesota
CWD is a contagious brain disease caused by self-replicating, abnormal proteins called prions. It’s similar to mad cow disease, and while it hasn’t spread to humans, scientists say it is always fatal to deer, elk, and related animals.
It’s a pernicious disease not only because it is deadly but because the prions in question are difficult to destroy and can linger in the environment for years.
CWD has spread widely in Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, but is far less prevalent in Minnesota. And the state’s Department of Natural Resources would like to keep it that way to retain a robust deer hunting industry that helps fund the agency and is an economic engine in the state. CWD tends to depress hunting in outbreak areas, and Michelle Carstensen, the DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor, said the economic impact of wild hunting statewide is roughly $750 million every year.
Since 2010, the state has detected 188 cases of CWD in wild deer in Minnesota. Those have mostly been clustered in the southeast metro and the southeastern part of the state. Carstensen said it’s been disappointing to continue to find new cases in the region but noted infections aren’t markedly increasing.
“I would say we have a persistent infection in southeast Minnesota,” she said.
Nevertheless, Carstensen said the DNR has detected two wild cases in recent months near Bemidji and two wild deer with CWD in Grand Rapids this year, though recent surveillance hasn’t revealed more infections around Grand Rapids.
CWD has also been detected in seven captive deer farms since 2017, sparking the DNR and state lawmakers to restrict the industry out of concern the disease can spread from escaped deer — potentially transported from areas with CWD outbreaks — to the wild population, or through interactions between deer along fences.
Last year, the DNR temporarily stopped deer farms from moving animals as a containment measure. And legislators in 2019 passed a law that makes farmers euthanize their herd after CWD is detected and maintain fencing around an empty farm for five years. The businesses can be paid by the federal government for having to, as the lingo goes, “depopulate” their herd.
Most recently, the state has found CWD in a captive Winona herd this year and at a farm in Beltrami County last year, where the owner dumped deer carcasses on public land that University of Minnesota researchers say had evidence of CWD. That business has fought state action.
The Board of Animal Health is the primary agency regulating the businesses. Dr. Courtney Wheeler, senior veterinarian with the board, estimated that about three years ago, there were 600 farms, including hobby farms. “A lot of producers are electing to get out because of the very strict regulations in this state,” she said.
Debate at the Legislature
At the Legislature earlier this year, the DFL tried to pass even more limits on deer farms, including a moratorium.
One moratorium bill authored by outgoing Rep. Rob Ecklund, a DFLer from International Falls, would have also allowed hunters to kill and keep escaped farmed deer, required commercial white-tailed deer farmers to have two perimeter fences meant to limit contact with wild animals, and banned farmers who have a positive CWD test from raising cervids on the same property for 10 years.
The bill drew support from wild deer hunting associations and others, like Faron Jackson Sr., chairman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
He testified in favor of Ecklund’s bill, saying during a March hearing that CWD-positive deer tied to the farm near Bemidji were found 12 miles from the reservation boundary. Jackson said many tribal members have a subsistence diet that relies on venison as a staple. And it’s also a popular activity, drawing 700 tribal hunters every year, Jackson said.
“Our hunting and gathering rights are tied to the lands within the Leech Lake reservation,” he said. “We cannot exercise these hunting and gathering rights in a different part of the state, so if our deer herds on the reservation are infected with CWD, there is no deer for us to hunt to feed our families.”
The Deer Farmers Association and the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association opposed Ecklund’s bill and argue the industry’s threat to wild deer is overstated or that measures meant to limit spread are expensive and unproven. Another argument Spreck made was that new deer farms are the “life blood of the industry.”
“New farms are the place where we sell breeding stock, where we sell does, we sell fawns, we sell equipment, feed, semen and expertise,” Spreck said. “They kind of help keep the industry viable and help people that are currently in the business to continue commerce in a meaningful way.”
Meanwhile, Republicans who had controlled the state Senate proposed other measures, including one to pay deer farmers harmed by the movement ban and other state regulations. There was another proposal to buy out deer farmers from the industry.
At one hearing, Fran Tvedt, an owner of Get the Big Buck in rural Red Lake County, told lawmakers the movement ban caused customers to back out from booked hunts.
“The movement ban also prevented us from buying additional bucks to stock our preserve,” she said. “The financial damage has been severe and we struggle day by day to pay the bills.”
For a moment, it appeared the Republican-led Senate might embrace a moratorium on deer farms. The chamber voted in favor of the policy earlier this year when proposed by a Democratic lawmaker. It drew five Republican supporters.
But Republicans later reversed that decision after convincing four of the GOP lawmakers to step away from a moratorium. The flip drew outcry from Senate DFLers. They accused the Senate Majority Leader at the time, Jeremy Miller of Winona, of a conflict of interest because his brother Todd owns a deer farm. Miller, who was replaced as Senate Republican leader by Sen. Mark Johnson after the election, said he had no conflict of interest because he had no financial stake in the farm.
Months later, in August, CWD was detected in an animal on Todd Miller’s farm, so his herd was killed. The business is an area where wild deer are known to have CWD. In another wrinkle, a CWD-positive deer detected at the farm in Beltrami County came originally from Miller’s Epic Antler Ranch in Winona.
Hansen, the House DFLer, said ultimately that he foresees a “comprehensive CWD approach” that includes limits on deer farms, but also other policies meant to curb the disease.
“What the details are of that I don’t know,” he said. “But I think we will be aggressive in the House.”