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CWD inspires policy changes
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The proposal being prepared for lawmakers includes money to refurbish the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. It was built more than four decades ago and is ill-equipped to deal with a large amount of testing. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
Interested groups from around the state are meeting to discuss possible legislative changes to try to manage the spread of chronic wasting disease. A captive elk in central Minnesota tested positive for the disease late last summer. CWD has yet to surface in the state's wild deer population. Experts hope to present proposed policy changes to state lawmakers to keep the disease at bay.

Rochester, Minn. — Critics say the current attempts to deal with chronic wasting disease are hampered by bureaucracy and confusion over who is responsible for animals affected by the disease. As a result stakeholders are working to streamline the system.

Currently, both the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health monitor domestic herds under two sets of regulations. In perhaps the biggest change, the new plan places all responsibility for captive elk and deer with the Board of Animal Health. That leaves the Department of Natural Resources to focus on wild deer.

Mark Johnson is president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and represents approximately 20,000 members. Johnson says separating responsibility for wild and farmed animals is a good idea.

"It does one thing right away," he says. "It puts all of the animals inside the fences under the same restrictions and the same regulations and the same monitoring and the same surveillance and recommendations. It also allows the DNR to concentrate on our wild herd, which is what they should be concentrating on."

The plan also has the preliminary support of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association. Brenda Hartkopf is the group's secretary. She says it's too soon to fully embrace the plan, but she says so far it looks pretty good.

"We've been part of this process for a while" Hartkopf says. "Items that are in the proposed draft legislation are acceptable to us. I really don't have any concerns about any sections of it." Other changes call for all farms with captive deer and elk to enroll in the state's chronic wasting disease surveillance program. Currently, participation is not mandatory. But if the Legislature accepts the proposal, all farmed animals over the age of 16 months that die will be tested for the disease.

Mike DonCarlos is a wildlife resource manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. DonCarlos says there will also be provision that will give the DNR commissioner emergency power should CWD turn up in the wild.

"That has to do with the licensing of hunters, holding special hunts, regulating the methods of that type of hunting, and restricting carcass movement and those types of things," explains DonCarlos.

But those statutory authorities will only take hold if the disease is found in Minnesota's wild deer. In the meantime, DonCarlos says there also some preventative measures lawmakers will be asked to approve.

"We're considering restrictions on deer feeding and restrictions on carcass imports by hunters returning from hunting trips out of state," says DonCarlos.

The proposal to ban deer feeding is controversial. Scientists believe the disease may be transmitted from animal to animal through nasal mucus and saliva, possibly while eating together. So deliberately attracting large numbers of deer to one spot is considered dangerous. But deer feeding advocates say the legislature should hold off on the ban until CWD is discovered in the wild.

Other considerations for approval include $1.5 million to renovate the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The facility was built in 1959. It's considered outdated and poorly equipped to test a large volume of animal samples.

The state's projected $4.5 billion budget deficit could hamper some of the plans. The DNR's Mike DonCarlos says he aware this is a tough year to ask for additional funding.

"There are going to be some costs associated with this proposal and this is a critical need and certainly we recognize this is not a good time to be looking for new money, but CWD is an issue we need to deal with right now but that's all going to have to fit into an equation," says DonCarlos.

The DNR's DonCarlos, along with representatives from the Board of Animal Health, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association will be among the participants at the meeting in St. Paul.

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