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In effort to curb chronic wasting disease, DFL lawmakers agree to ban new deer farms

Legislators agreed to a moratorium last week as they hashed out differences between major environmental bills passed earlier this year by the House and Senate.

Two white-tailed deer
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological illness that has spread to some parts of Minnesota.

Democratic lawmakers are close to banning new white-tailed deer farms in Minnesota, a decision that would serve a major blow to the statewide industry but one that DFLers hope will help curb the spread of chronic wasting disease and protect wild herds.

Legislators agreed to a moratorium last week as they hashed out differences between major environmental bills passed earlier this year by the House and Senate. The DFL is also poised to implement other regulations on deer farms and transfer oversight authority on captive white-tailed deer from the Board of Animal Health to the Department of Natural Resources.

State Rep. Rick Hansen
“It is our hope that this will help address the problem of chronic wasting disease that affects our entire state,” said state Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer, during a night-time hearing at the Capitol on Thursday to announce the deal. Hansen chairs the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee. 

The final agreement still needs to pass both chambers of the Legislature, where Democrats hold narrow majorities. But it’s a strong sign major limits on deer farming are imminent after years of debate over whether the businesses pose a threat of spreading CWD among wild deer in Minnesota.

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Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological illness that has spread to some parts of Minnesota. The contagious disease is caused by self-replicating, abnormal proteins called prions. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has found 216 CWD-positive wild deer since 2010, which is far less than in surrounding states like Wisconsin and Iowa. 

But state officials say containing it must be a priority to protect wild deer — and the hunting industry. The DNR has estimated the economic impact of wild hunting statewide at roughly $750 million every year.

CWD found in seven captive deer farms since 2017 has raised significant concerns among lawmakers and some state officials, who worry 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.

And a 2021 case in Beltrami County particularly raised concerns when an owner dumped deer carcasses on public land that University of Minnesota researchers say had evidence of CWD. There have been no confirmed CWD cases on cervid farms this year, according to the Board of Animal Health.

Deer farmers have fought the idea that they are a significant risk to wild herds, arguing the science isn’t settled or that wild deer could also spread to captive ones. Scott Fier, president of the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association, said Friday that farmers test every deer older than a year that dies on their property, which is required under state law, and can take steps to limit the disease that aren’t so drastic as to drive people out of business. He said most farmers care deeply about avoiding CWD and shouldn’t be blamed for bad actors.

In late December, the Board of Animal Health estimated that Minnesota had 229 “cervid” farms with roughly 6,000 animals. Some farms are breeding operations, others have hunting enclosures. Some raise elk for meat and still others sell products like velvet, urine or semen. Those farms also include hobby farms where someone might have deer as pets.

Democrats have tried for years to put sharp new limits on deer farms, like fencing requirements and the moratorium on new businesses. Many of those regulations were rejected when Republicans controlled the state Senate. GOP lawmakers said the industry was being unfairly blamed and should be able to operate.

The final legislation unveiled by the DFL on Thursday includes several measures aimed at deer farms, in addition to the ban on new businesses. The bill says a licensed hunter can kill and, in most cases, keep a farmed cervid that escapes its enclosure.

The legislation says fencing must prevent physical contact between wild cervids and farmed ones, and state officials can compel businesses to fortify their barriers if they’re inadequate. That’s a change from double-fencing requirements that some Democrats wanted but farmers said, among many arguments against the plan, would be wildly expensive.

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Under the DFL agreement, state law would prevent herd owners from moving white-tailed deer from a herd with a positive CWD test to any other location. If a CWD-positive deer is found, the farm has to maintain fencing — and not raise any deer there — for at least 10 years. Current law says deer farmers must “depopulate,” or kill, their herd after a positive test and keep fencing for five years. And the proposal includes new limits on importing deer and semen.

Fier, who owns Buffalo Ridge Whitetails in the west-central city of Porter, pleaded with lawmakers to “pump the brakes and take a step back.” He said deer farmers are desperate and have unsuccessfully pushed for a state buyout of farms. “I think it’s going to end pretty quick, to be honest,” Fier said of an industry facing a ban on new farms and other limits. “I’m trying to be optimistic.”

Fier said he’s been raising deer for 22 years. He took over the business from his parents and said he wanted his kids to take over some day. But the outlook for the industry, he said, “is very bleak at this point.”