Concerned with how chronic wasting disease has been detected closer than it’s ever been to Northeastern Minnesota, St. Louis County commissioners moved this week toward implementation of a temporary moratorium on captive white-tailed deer farms.

The County Board voted unanimously Tuesday in Duluth to advance toward a public hearing on a moratorium, which commissioners say would give them time to study the issue and develop a permanent ordinance.

“It’s time to take action rather than sit back and watch,” said Commissioner Keith Musolf, representing Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake and other areas surrounding Duluth.

The ban would apply to other cervid farms, too, including elk, caribou and mule deer. Farms where deer and other cervids congregate have proven to be a vector for transmission of chronic wasting disease, a fatal protein-altering illness that progressively attacks animals’ brains and neurological systems.

White-tailed deer congregate at a deer farm south of Superior.
Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune
White-tailed deer congregate at a deer farm south of Superior. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

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“I see it as an issue that could potentially damage and impact the recreational industry of white-tailed deer hunting in the state of Minnesota,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson, based in Virginia.

The state is home to about 259 such farms, according to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the state agency that regulates deer farms. As recently as February 2020, the county confirmed there were six registered herds in St. Louis County, including the Lake Superior Zoo.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and the University of Minnesota’s Peter A. Larsen, of the Department of Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences, joined commissioners Tuesday, presenting an update on chronic wasting disease since its arrival in north-central Minnesota’s Beltrami County this spring.

“The Beltrami County farm situation was a game changer,” Engwall said.

In that case, a captive farm received a contaminated animal shipped from southeastern Minnesota, infecting the herd. Contaminated carcasses associated with the farm were illegally disposed of on state land in a roughly 12-acre area since fenced off by state authorities.

Animals can carry the disease for two to three years before dying. Not a virus or bacteria, rather CWD is a misfolded protein which acts to misshape other proteins at a cellular level, not unlike Alzheimer's disease in humans, Larsen explained.

The misshapen proteins, or prions, that cause CWD can be transmitted by animals sharing food sources, carried by scavengers or even found in the soils, Larsen told commissioners. It remains unclear if the proteins can be transmitted to humans, but studies have shown transmission to other animals and even primates.

“Make no mistake, we are at war with CWD in the state of Minnesota,” Larsen said. “We are at war with this disease, and it’s one we have to work hard to manage the spread.”

Deer hunting is a $500 million-per-year industry in Minnesota, Engwall said, noting how cervid farms rake in only a portion of that economically, between $12 million and $25 million annually.

The deer hunters association wants the state to buy out existing farms in order to suffocate the commercial vector for the disease.

In their resolution, county commissioners are also asking state legislators to implement a statewide moratorium, and for the Department of Natural Resources to both stop registering new farms and permanently prohibit the transportation of farmed deer and other cervid animals.

Larsen noted hunting plays a role, too, calling it an effective way to manage the disease.

"We've really got to keep the hunting pressure up," said Larsen, whose ongoing work includes attempts to create a rapid, site test which would allow hunters to be confident in a clean harvest.

"We're working on things in the lab that will get us there," he added.

St. Louis County’s hearing is scheduled to take place during the Sept. 28 County Board meeting at the Alborn Community Center. The board will vote on a moratorium following the hearing.