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Minnesota deer farmers fear they'll be cast as 'villain' in talks about beating fatal disease

Steve Porter, a whitetail deer farmer from Lake Bronson, and his son Brody on Thursday, March 7, 2019, testified against a set of bills aimed at preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease, saying the bills could pose serious problems for their family's business. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- As state lawmakers took up their first conversations about re-writing state law to stop the spread of a deadly disease in deer, cervid farmers said they worried they would become the "villain" in the debates.

Members of the House Agriculture and Food Finance and Policy Division seemed to agree that the state needs to address chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease in deer, moose, caribou and elk. But they split on how best to do that.

More than 30 cases of the disease have been confirmed in wild deer in Minnesota. And to stave off additional cases, Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers proposed setting a moratorium on new deer farms that can open in Minnesota and offering buyouts for existing ones. They also proposed requiring cervid farmers to euthanize their herds if a deer was found to have CWD.

Bill supporters, including hunting and wildlife advocates, said the proposals were key to limiting the disease's spread to wild deer populations. Cervid farmers and critics of government regulation opposed the bills and said they would unfairly penalize farmers and could tank the industry.

“Nobody is happy with the fact that we have to deal with this disease,” Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said. Becker-Finn carried the set of proposals. “It doesn’t feel fair to anyone, but it’s the reality that we’re in.”

There's no test at this point that can detect CWD in live deer. And there's no vaccine or antidote to get rid of it.

Scientists have found that infected waste or deer carcasses can then transmit those prions to soil and plants, where they can live for an undetermined amount of time.

Opponents of the proposals said that science would make proposed requirements to place two sets of fences around farmed deer ineffective as squirrels, mice or birds could carry the prions outside the enclosed area.

And they raised red flags about banning the transportation of deer or deer carcasses across state lines.

Steve Porter, a Lake Bronson whitetail deer farmer who takes his deer on the road for demonstrations, said the change would effectively kill his business.

"One signing of a pen wipes that out. My entertainment business that I built is dead," Porter said. “The deer farm industry is being singled out to be the villain in this."

The deer farms could be a space to breed deer to become resistant to the disease, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said, and shutting them down could eliminate a resource. He said he supported funding a test to detect the disease in live deer, which could be used in both farmed and wild deer.

"My biggest fear is that we (start) battling between one or the other and I don’t think it needs to go there," Hamilton said. "It’s a threat to both sides."

Gov. Tim Walz last month proposed spending $4.6 million to fight the spread of CWD. Walz's proposal would also put an additional $208,000 to the Board of Animal Health in 2020 and $529,000 starting in 2021. The extra dollars would aim to improve monitoring of farmed deer.

Committee Chair Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said the proposals to impact regulations and monitoring of cervid farms would be considered to be part of a larger committee bill in the weeks ahead. She encouraged lawmakers to keep the same "villain" in mind.

“CWD is the villain, it's the problem, right?" Poppe said. "So that’s what we have to try to resolve."

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