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Hunting for Answers Citizens Forum
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Attendees at the Hunting for Answers forum. (MPR Photo/Colleen Davies)
In conjunction with Mainstreet Radio's series, Hunting for Answers, MPR conducted a public forum on hunting issues on Feb. 4, 2003 at Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd. About 90 people attended, to provide more insight into their opinions about challenges facing the deer hunting tradition in Minnesota. Here is a summary of their discussion, written by Frank Clancy.

Brainerd, Minn. — Approximately 90 people attended this public forum at Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd. Most (72 percent) were hunters, and most lived either in Brainerd (43 percent) or elsewhere in the lakes region (28 percent). A few were young (7 percent) or elderly (8 percent), but the vast majority of participants were between 21 and 65.

Reasons for Attending the Forum

Individuals gave a variety of reasons for attending the forum. One wanted to learn more about chronic wasting disease (CWD). Another was concerned about management of the deer herd. A man who raises elk said he was worried about CWD.

Still others saw the meeting as part of their desire to defend the right to hunt and teach younger generations. "I've enjoyed hunting all my life," said one man. "It's my desire to learn all I can in order to pass this wonderful tradition on to my grandsons. I've been able to pass it on to my sons and daughters. I want to see it go on to my grandsons and their grandchildren." A woman expressed eagerness "to fight together, as a team, to keep our hunting rights."

Concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease

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Image A panel of experts answers questions

Despite (or perhaps because of) extensive media coverage of CWD, relatively few people (20 percent) said they were concerned or very concerned about CWD before last fall's hunting season; 63 percent expressed little or no concern. Since the end of hunting season, the latter number has increased: 76 percent said they now feel little or no concern about CWD.

Asked to explain that lack of concern, one man said, "When we first had our concerns, we didn't know enough about it." Another said the DNR had at first made it seem as though CWD would devastate deer herds across Minnesota. One-third said the DNR did a good job providing hunters information about chronic wasting disease. "I think a lot of the concern was media generated. I don't think there was much concern among hunters," said another.

A full 92 percent of those who attended the forum agreed that this year's hunt was as enjoyable as it had been in the past. DNR figures suggest there was only a small decline (less than 10 percent) in the number of hunters.

Media Coverage of Chronic Wasting Disease

Overall, forum participants rated CWD coverage in their local (non-Twin Cities) media somewhat higher (a 3.1 average on a scale of 1 to 5) than they did the urban media (2.3 average). One forum participant praised the Brainerd Dispatch for having the paper's outdoor correspondent review all CWD coverage. A reporter who covered last fall's hunt, however, said she thought some criticism of the media was unfair. She saw many hunters with articles from the Star Tribune about how to process meat.

"I think nationally and in the state, CWD media coverage has generally been very good, with the exception of the headlines," said one DNR official. "If you were to just read the headlines, you would reach a very different conclusion than if you read the [articles]. ... TV was similar. They do the lead-in for their 10 o'clock news. It's advertising. It doesn't necessarily represent what the story is."

Testing for CWD

The DNR collected about 4,500 deer samples for CWD testing last fall. Hunters submitted another 500 or so samples directly to the University of Minnesota. About half of the DNR tests have been completed. Not one case of CWD has been discovered. But a DNR official said those encouraging results should be viewed with caution, since samples were collected from only about 10 percent of the state. "If we end up negative, that's very good news, but we've only looked at about 10 percent of our deer herd, so we've got a ways to go," he said.

It's my desire to learn all I can in order to pass this wonderful tradition on to my grandsons. I've been able to pass it on to my sons and daughters. I want to see it go on to my grandsons and their grandchildren.
- Forum participant

Looking for CWD is, one scientist said, "a very time-consuming, elaborate, difficult, expensive test to do." As they process last fall's samples, scientists are working to improve testing methods to make them faster and less expensive.

Blood samples from Minnesota are also being shipped to Colorado, where researchers are trying to develop a blood test for CWD that would allow them to test for the disease without killing animals. But a blood test will likely take years to develop and validate to make sure it's sufficiently sensitive and accurate.


The DNR continues to test sick deer, and is developing plans for a second stage of surveillance to detect CWD. The DNR is also working with scientists and officials in other government departments to draft comprehensive legislation addressing issues related to CWD. In response to a hunter's question about importing whole deer carcasses, a DNR official said he expects Minnesota to restrict the ability of hunters to import dead deer and elk from out of state.

"The goal will be to prohibit whole-carcass importation, but allow processed meat, boneless meat," he said. "It's all designed to minimize the amount of lymphatic, spinal cord and brain tissue coming into the state." There's no evidence, at present, that live deer can be infected from carcasses, he added, and it "doesn't seem very likely." But he called import restrictions "a prudent step."

Colorado and Wyoming already have restrictions on the exporting of deer and elk. In practice, legislation in Minnesota will primarily affect hunters returning from Wisconsin, who would have to butcher animals in the field or arrange for processing there. The DNR asked hunters to do this voluntarily last fall.

Transmission of CWD from Captive Elk to Deer, Humans, and Other Species

As a result of extensive testing of deer samples collected near Aitkin, where the first case of CWD was identified in Minnesota last summer, the DNR has a solid body of information to use as a foundation for future tests. The next step, a DNR official said, is to look at distribution of the 900-odd samples in relationship to the infected farm, then to decide whether more sampling is needed.

Once you get to the levels [of infection] in the Western states, and it's endemic, you no longer have, we don't think, the ability to control the disease. Then it becomes a question of how devastating it will be to the deer herd.
- DNR official, on controlling CWD

If CWD were to be discovered in wild deer, the DNR would have to conduct additional intensive testing in the infected area to determine the rate of infection and how far it had spread. Current sampling techniques are designed to detect CWD, and cannot provide scientists a good picture of the infection rate if CWD is found. The results of subsequent testing -- the rate of infection and its geographic scope -- would determine the DNR's response.

"The smaller the area [of infection], the quicker and the more drastic the response will be," a DNR official explained. "There's general agreement among managers working with CWD that if you detect it in the wild population early, you should really try to stamp it out [then], because it may be your last chance."

If infection rates were to reach levels currently seen in Western states -- 10 percent to 12 percent spread over large areas -- it would be difficult if not impossible to eliminate the disease. If CWD were discovered in a large area, the DNR would likely use a broader containment strategy, rather than try to eliminate it completely.

The DNR is definitely concerned about the spread of CWD from captive to wild populations. It's unclear, though, whether or how much of a threat captive infected elk pose to nearby wild deer. A poll of forum participants showed moderate concern about the transfer of CWD from captive elk to wild deer (a 2.9 average on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very concerned).

CWD has had a "devastating" effect on the elk industry, the largest in the U.S., one elk farmer said. He described a farmer from Alexandria who lost $220,000 last year because he could not export animals out of state for hunting on preserves. But consumer demand for elk meat is rebounding. This farmer said virtually all elk farmers have their animals tested for CWD when they’re slaughtered.

There is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted from animals to humans due to eating the meat of infected animals. Test tube experiments suggest humans are resistant to the protein that transmits CWD.

CWD can be transmitted among elk, white tail and mule deer. Scientists are also concerned that the disease will spread to cattle, though tests over the past five years show no evidence of transmissibility. Health officials are always reluctant to say there's no risk, since proving a negative is almost impossible, "but the risk is extraordinarily low," a scientist said. Few people in the room were concerned about catching CWD from venison: 96 percent said they'd eat meat from deer killed last fall.

Likewise, according to one DNR official, there's no evidence of CWD spreading to other predators, such as wolves and mountain lions. Although experiments are being conducted, scientists don't have enough information to give a definitive answer.

One man who grew up in the area of Wisconsin most affected by CWD said people there were more concerned by the Wisconsin DNR's response to CWD -- killing thousands and thousands of healthy deer -- than by the fear of contracting CWD. But a DNR official said he thought Minnesota should take a similar approach if CWD is found in a small area.

"Once you get to the levels [of infection] in the Western states, and it's endemic, you no longer have, we don't think, the ability to control the disease," he said. "Then it becomes a question of how devastating it will be to the deer herd. ... You determine the infected area, and kill all the deer in the area, then hold that population at zero, or as close to zero as possible, for a period of time."

One forum participant suggested that such drastic measures might be averted if Minnesota reduced its deer population. But the states with the highest levels of CWD infection in wild deer actually have relatively few deer -- densities below the lowest ever seen in Minnesota. Even reducing the deer population 50 to 75 percent would not prevent the spread of CWD, once it spread to wild deer, a DNR official said.

(Continued on page 2)

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