Chronic wasting disease festered within a state-regulated deer farm in Crow Wing County for more than two years, infecting 14 or more captive deer and leaking out to contaminate a deer in the wild.
Those are the conclusions state officials drew Wednesday in reporting final CWD testing results on a private herd of 102 whitetails and mule deer at Trophy Woods Ranch. All the deer in the enclosed breeding and pay-to-hunt facility near Nisswa were killed last month in an undisclosed, taxpayer-funded financial agreement with the owner, Kevin Schmidt.
When sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived April 16 to euthanize the herd, they found 13 decomposed deer, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health said Wednesday in a news release. The agency regulates the state’s 373 deer farms and requires herd owners to report any deer deaths within 14 days. The farms range in purpose from hobbies to providing shooting opportunities, breeding trophy bucks, supplying venison or growing antler products.
Board of Animal Health Assistant Director Linda Glaser said in a conference call with reporters that none of the decomposed deer had been reported to the agency and that the carcasses were too decayed to be tested for CWD. It was a striking final report about a deer farm that drew much criticism from deer hunters around the state for staying in business for so long while harboring the disease. Infected farms have been known to spread CWD to wild herds.
Since 2016, when the first case of CWD was reported at Trophy Woods Ranch, wildlife officials at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have wanted the facility shut down. But the DNR has little authority over the farms and the only established buyout program is through the USDA.
In February, state wildlife officials announced that an emaciated female deer found dead very close to the deer farm tested positive for CWD. Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research manager, said Wednesday that the legacy of Trophy Woods Ranch includes the infected wild deer.
“That’s the most likely pathway of transmission,” he said. “The data supports that this is where the disease came from.”
The agency has declared a large area around the farm as a disease-management zone and will continue to run a CWD response plan that includes extra hunting and widespread CWD testing of hunter-harvested deer and road-killed deer.
It’s the first time CWD has been detected in the wild deer population outside southeastern Minnesota, where 50 cases have been confirmed in an ongoing outbreak.
Of 89 test-worthy deer at Trophy Woods Ranch killed and removed from the property last month, seven tested positive for the disease, Glaser said. Those cases brought the total number of known infected deer from the site to 14.
Glaser said the Board of Animal Health began discussions with the USDA late last year to put the deer farm out of business. She said Schmidt will be “issued a notice of violation” which does not carry a fine, for not reporting the deer deaths. Some carcasses had been on the ground for a long time, she said.
“Yes, that was disconcerting that so many animals had died during the winter,” Glaser said.
Glaser also expressed dissatisfaction that Schmidt moved bison and cattle onto the property before the deer herd was euthanized. The diversification wasn’t against regulations, but part of the depopulation agreement called for Schmidt to clean up grounds and equipment after the depopulation to reduce the spread of disease-causing prions — abnormal protein particles shed by infected deer.
“Our preference would have been to make sure the enclosure was cleaned up,” Glaser said.
Schmidt could not be reached for comment.
No one has documented that CWD can jump to cattle or bison, but Dr. Michael Osterholm, who leads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, cautioned a committee of state legislators Wednesday that he’s concerned it could happen. Public health officials already caution people not to eat meat from any CWD-infected animal.
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, said Wednesday that she questions whether the Board of Animal Health is capable of managing CWD outbreaks on deer farms.
The unreported deer deaths at Trophy Woods raise questions about accountability. In addition, she said, the agency’s regulations aren’t in step with the best science on disease prevention.
For instance, Trophy Woods Farm is now precluded by the agency from taking down its fence or restocking deer. But that prohibition lasts only five years and prions shed in the environment are believed by many scientists to be capable of transmitting CWD for a much longer time.
“If this is the agency that we’re relying on, it’s pretty unsettling that they are not following good science,” Becker-Finn said.
Tony Kennedy is an outdoors writer covering Minnesota news about fishing, hunting, wildlife, conservation, camping, natural resource management, public land, forests and water.