Legislators vote for ban on new deer farms to fight wasting disease

No new deer farms could be started in Minnesota under an agreement reached Thursday night by a conference committee concerned about the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the state's invaluable wild deer population.

The negotiated deal, brokered by Sen. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, also would shift oversight of deer farms from the Board of Animal Health to the Department of Natural Resources. Among other new provisions, the agreement would strengthen fencing requirements around captive whitetail herds and place new restrictions on the importation of captive deer from areas where CWD is a problem.

"I'm feeling relieved and happy this morning,'' Morrison said. "This is a big deal for our state. … Our goal is to contain this disease.''

The deer farm measure was adopted by House and Senate conferees as part of a larger environment, natural resources, climate and energy bill that would be sent to Gov. Tim Walz to be signed into law. On Friday, the conference committee was working to resolve differences over other aspects of the bill.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said the agreement is a big payoff for five years of work by various groups to tighten controls on an industry that has been linked by DNR researchers to CWD outbreaks in the wild deer population. Nationwide, CWD is seen by many wildlife officials, hunting groups, public health experts and economic development officials as a disease that must be reckoned with before it spins out of control.

"This is the most comprehensive chronic wasting disease package passed anywhere in the country,'' said Hansen, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.

As of late last year, Minnesota had 229 "cervid" farms containing about 6,000 animals, mostly deer. The farms serve various purposes, including the raising of genetically engineered monster bucks for private, enclosed hunts. Other deer are raised for meat, antler velvet, urine scent for hunters or for the trade of semen to breeding operations.

Morrison, a physician, isn't on the conference committee that adopted the package, but she has sponsored legislation to control the spread of CWD for reasons that include the potential for the disease to cross over into humans and common livestock herds.

"Deer hunting is a big part of our tradition, and it's a certain way some Minnesotans feed their family,'' Morrison said.

John Zanmiller, director of community and governmental affairs for Bluffland Whitetails Association in southeastern Minnesota, said he was floored when he heard of the deer farm agreement.

"I'm pleased as punch,'' he said. "This is a huge step forward in containing chronic wasting disease.''

One of the sticking points had been a demand by some legislators to impose a requirement for deer farms throughout Minnesota to be double-fenced. Experts believe CWD is spread from close contact at fence lines between captive whitetails and wild deer. Deer farmers have strongly resisted the idea, which would be expensive for them.

Double-fencing isn't required under the deal adopted by the conference committee, Morrison said, but it strengthens fencing regulations by giving the DNR leeway to determine whether a deer farm fence "is adequate to prevent physical contact or escape.''

Morrison said the shift of deer farm oversight from the Board of Animal Health to the DNR is meant to improve on the existing system of joint oversight. A state legislative auditor's report from several years ago knocked the board for being cozy with deer farms and lax on enforcement.

"Most people would agree that concurrent authority wasn't working perfectly,'' Morrison said. "It's better when one agency has ultimate authority.''

She noted that the Board of Animal Health would continue to have oversight over elk farms and other hoofed animals classified as cervidae.

Morrison said the moratorium against the establishment of new deer farms "is important until we have a better handle on chronic wasting disease." The adopted language says the moratorium doesn't prohibit an existing deer farm from selling or transferring the person's registration to an immediate​ family member. A valid registration may be sold or transferred only once, according to the adopted language.

Another piece of the reform measure deals with live animal testing of captive deer. The University of Minnesota has developed what could become the first workable test for CWD in live deer. Current testing relies on tissue sampling of dead deer. Once the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves a live test, new requirements for the testing would already be written into law if the bill is passed.

Among other things, deer farmers couldn't import a captive deer from any area where CWD has been a problem unless it passed the live test for the always-fatal neurological disease.