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Hills deer farmer against proposed chronic wasting disease legislation; seeks better solutions

Contagious disease always fatal, less than 1 percent of deer test with CWD
Lead Summary
Lori Sorenson

By Lori Sorenson
Hills deer farm operator Greg Leenderts recently traveled to St. Paul to visit with lawmakers about how proposed legislation would affect his business.
“Chronic wasting disease has become a hot topic the last year and legislators are looking for someone to blame,” Leenderts said.
“Deer farmers agree that CWD is a disease that needs to be monitored; however, this bill has nothing to do with stopping CWD in the wild herd. This bill is designed to put all the blame on deer farms and to shut them down.”
Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal, contagious neurological illness occurring in North American cervids (members of the deer family), including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose.
It causes the brain of the infected animal to deteriorate, which eventually results in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death
Since its discovery in 1967, CWD has spread geographically and increased in prevalence locally. In Minnesota, it’s been detected in eastern, northern and west central Minnesota, but not in southwest parts of the state.
Leenderts visited with District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, Luverne, March 7 to explain how the legislation would affect him.
Legislation, if passed, would require deer farms to, among other things:
•Double their fence height to 10 feet. “All of my fence and poles would have to be replaced at a cost for my farm alone of nearly $100,000,” Leenderts said.
•Restrict all movement on or off all deer farms. “If I can’t sell deer I have no business,” he said.
•Halt new farms or forbid the expansion of existing ones.
“They want to stop any new deer farms from being made,” Leenderts said. “There is also a large list of smaller items that would also not allow us to operate.”
Sending a message to lawmakers
When Leenderts visited with Schomacker last week, he shared information about deer production on his farm.
•All deer that die on Minnesota deer farms or those that are butchered get tested for CWD.
•All deer that get sold off a Minnesota deer farm get tested for CWD. If those deer die at the new location, test results are sent to the original farm.
•Minnesota cervidae farms (deer, elk, moose, and related forms) have tested over 99 percent CWD free.
•Minnesota deer farms (including the ones operated by Leenderts) have started breeding with deer genetics that are known to be resistant to CWD. Deer farms have also spent millions of dollars on research on CWD in the last few years.
•91 percent of deceased deer on farms are tested compared with only .08 percent of wild deer in the state in 2014.
“For that reason a deer farm has an 89-percent greater chance of having a deer tested for CWD than a local wild deer,” Leenderts said.
“They do not test deer for CWD in Rock County; therefore, if it is here, it’ll be found on my farm first, which is why legislators find it easier to point at deer farms.”
Leenderts said Minnesota deer farmers do not want CWD on their farm or in the wild.
“CWD is not good for either herd,” he said. “However, CWD is found in less than .005 percent of wild deer, and even a smaller number in Minnesota farmed cervidae animals.”
Leenderts told Schomacker if the bill passes, he’ll be forced to close his farm, which currently breeds more than 30 does each fall, and all his animals would have to be euthanized by the USDA.
“Also we would lose all our financial investment in our deer, all the research and resistant breeding genes we have put into our deer, all the tours we do on our farm, and my boys each have their own pet deer that would have to be euthanized, even though we have no CWD in our herd,” he said.
“We enjoy our deer and hope people in the community have as well. Anyone that knows me knows I’m also a huge fan of wild whitetail hunting. If I thought my farm was a risk to the local wild deer I would not do it.”
Seeking solutions
A series of bills have been introduced in St. Paul, including a moratorium on new deer farms, restrictions on moving deer between facilities and a voluntary buyout option for farms to leave the industry.
Another bill would give the Board of Animal Health power to forcibly destroy infected herds. A competing bill would put the DNR in charge of regulating deer farms and give them the power to kill herds.
A more modest proposal would require all Minnesota deer farms to build double fences around their pens, 10 feet high.
All involved agree CWD needs to be contained, but as yet, there isn’t a solution everyone can agree on.
Meanwhile, researchers are seeking funds to answer basic questions about the disease — if it’s spread through other insects, birds or other species, how long it takes to infect an animal, etc.
The only test for CWD must be done on brain tissue of a dead animal. It takes weeks to get results and the the University of Minnesota is the only  place that does it.

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