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St. Louis County Board passes moratorium on white-tailed deer farms

The county's moratorium will last for one year, and could lead to a more permanent ban. But it won't prevent deer going from one farm to another.

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A whitetail buck in the final stages of the always-fatal chronic wasting disease. Contributed / Warden Micheal Hopper, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism
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Moved to protect recreational hunting and the local white-tailed deer herd from the spread of chronic wasting disease, the St. Louis County Board implemented a moratorium on new deer and other cervid farms during its meeting in Alborn on Tuesday.

But in doing so, the board also learned the limitations of its own authority.

The moratorium will last for one year , and allows the county's planning commission time to make a report recommending proposed ordinance(s) or even a full-time ban.

Backed by authority in state statute, the board voted unanimously to install the moratorium, leaving the county with no more than the existing six registered captive herds in St. Louis County, including the Lake Superior Zoo.

But even before the vote, one of the Iron Range commissioners found the moratorium’s limits.

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“We had talked about transporting. Is that covered in this?” Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said. “When we talked about one farm to the other, which is what happened in Beltrami (County)?”

McDonald was referring to the northernmost detection of chronic wasting disease in the state, coming this spring to counties to the west of St. Louis County. The transmission was traced to a captive deer farm that received an infected animal shipped from southeastern Minnesota. The farm was also found to be disposing of carcasses, including contaminated ones, off-site, onto state land.

"The Beltrami County farm situation was a game changer," Craig Engwall said on Sept. 11 to the County Board.

Engwall is the executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and he spoke convincingly earlier this month about how deer hunting is a $500 million-per-year industry in Minnesota. He compared it then to the collective take of between $12 million and $25 million annually among the state’s 259 registered cervid farms.

The new moratorium includes no language preventing the transporting of animals from one farm to another.

“This was kind of a lesson in U.S. Constitutional law,” St. Louis County’s Kimberly Maki, the St. Louis County attorney in waiting who authored the resolution along with eastern Duluth Commissioner Patrick Boyle and Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Fayal Township.

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Kimberly Maki. Contributed / St. Louis County

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“There’s something called the interstate commerce act, where no state can make a law that prohibits interstate commerce," Maki said, explaining some exceptions and why the county's moratorium "steered clear" of the topic of transporting animals.

The county’s ban will apply to white-tailed deer and 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.

The moratorium sailed through a public hearing in which Engwall once again encouraged the County Board to talk to legislators in support of buying out existing cervid farms. The hoped-for result of such an effort would be to suffocate the disease in the state.

Though costly, commissioners at least seemed open to the idea of further support.

“I’m excited about what we ended up with and that we’re taking action,” Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing central Duluth, said. “It probably is useful at some point for us to maybe support the buyout of farms. … I don't know we can control it, unless we don't have them anymore."

Maki swearing-in is Wednesday

Maki will be sworn in as acting county attorney at 2:30 p.m., Wednesday on the steps outside the Duluth Civic Center and courthouse. There will be a brief celebration of the passing of the torch, as retiring St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin administers the oath of office to newly appointed County Attorney Maki, a county news release said.

County settles crash lawsuit

The St. Louis County Board voted unanimously and without debate Tuesday to make a settlement payment of $350,000 to the victim in a 2018 crash with a county vehicle.

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The settlement releases the county from further litigation, and County Administrator Kevin Gray characterized it as "reasonable" given the circumstances.

According to court documents related to the settlement, Coleton Grasto, of Big Lake, Minnesota, was on the roadside near the intersection of Martin Road and Eagle Lake Road in Duluth: "The (defendant) acting as an agent and in the course and scope of his employment for St. Louis County, drove in careless, negligent and unlawful manner by failing to keep proper lookout and failing control the truck he was driving, causing it to collide with trailer parked legally on the side of the road and injuring (Grasto)," the civil lawsuit said.

Grasto's suit claimed some permanent injuries and loss of earnings and reduced earning capacity.

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Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at djouse49@gmail.com.