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St. Louis County poised to ban new deer, elk farms

The scourge of chronic wasting disease has commissioners in agreement on a plan to stop the expansion of commercial herds.

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A deer addled with chronic wasting disease, a fatal condition found in deer and elk that kills the animals slowly.
Contributed / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
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GNESEN TOWNSHIP — Several months after installing a one-year moratorium on growth in deer farms and their ilk, the St. Louis County Board moved Tuesday toward a permanent ban on captive deer, elk and moose herds used for commercial hunting and raising game meat.

The decision comes as farms have become targets for their transmission of chronic wasting disease, and even reckless behavior in propagating the virus.

Saying state legislative efforts were watered-down and haven’t been strong enough, county commissioners voiced initial approval of a proposal to prevent expansion of existing farms and end the arrival of new ones until further scientific solutions were apparent.

“It’s not if, but when,” said Commissioner Patrick Boyle, of eastern Duluth, of the arrival of chronic wasting disease into the county’s wild deer herd.

Boyle added that he wanted St. Louis County to show the way for the whole state.

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Patrick Boyle.jpg
Patrick Boyle

The county’s current one-year moratorium was voted on unanimously last September — an effort to prevent the fatal virus from reaching the county’s wild herd.

A neighboring captive herd west of St. Louis County, in Beltrami County, was tainted by the virus last year.

The Beltrami County farm has been described as a “game-changer” for Northeastern Minnesota. The farm was found to be disposing of diseased carcasses onto state land — an area now fenced and forced into quarantine for the next two decades.

Faulty prions, or proteins, can be shed by cervid animals — deer, moose, and elk — into common food sources and soil, where the prions transmit the virus between the animals, especially in congregated settings like farms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been monitoring chronic wasting disease for several years, advising since 1997 against the consumption of meat affected by the virus.

There is a possibility the virus could transmit to humans.

“The concern is there,” said Matt Johnson, comparing it to the likelihood that a bat transmitted COVID-19 to usher in the ongoing pandemic.

Johnson is St. Louis County’s director of planning and community development. He described a range of possible outcomes, including doing nothing, before landing on his office’s recommendation to ban new and expanded farms.

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Johnson outlined results of a monthslong study into where the county should go next with its approach to chronic wasting disease. He cited considerations for protection being hunting, cultural significance, the role of deer in the food chain, and the aesthetic of having wild herds.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Johnson said.

“It’s a necessary pause for Northeastern Minnesota,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson, based in Virginia, signaling full support from rural commissioners for the upcoming measure.

The board’s vocal consent means county administration will draw up the proposal for the start of voting at a future date. The ban would also be subject to a public hearing, Johnson explained.

If passed, the measure would leave the county with no more than the existing five registered captive herds in St. Louis County — already down from a peak of 12 in 2017. All told, the state has more than 250 registered cervid farms.

Boyle noted the popularity of the state’s annual deer-hunting campaign, and the possibility of imperiling it. He also compared commercial hunting farms to the nearly 1 million acres of tax-forfeited land the county has available for hunting.

“Come and put a portable stand up and deer hunt like the rest of us,” Boyle said, challenging commercial hunting values. “Don’t spend $6,000 to $8,000 to shoot a 2-year-old deer given high doses of protein to have a trophy rack where you shoot it out of a 3-acre deer stand. Come and hunt with the rest of us that depend on this as meat in the freezer for long winters, and enjoy it for generations to come.”

This story was updated at 8 a.m. May 11, 2022 to provide more specifics on current farms in the county, and the future public hearing. It was originally posted at 3:33 p.m. May 10, 2022.

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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