Minnesota DNR Plans to Combat Bovine TB in Deer

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will hold a public meeting Thursday to outline plans to reduce the risk of bovine tuberculosis (TB) spreading to wild deer and cattle in northwestern Minnesota.

The disease, discovered at a cattle farm near Skime in 2005, has infected seven cattle herds in the area. Bovine TB was confirmed in two wild deer in 2005 and five additional deer tested presumed positive last fall. The public meeting will be held Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. in the Wannaska Elementary School gymnasium.

"Bovine TB is a progressive, chronic bacterial disease that affects primarily cattle, but also deer. The disease compromises the immune system and can lead to death from related causes," said Dr. Michelle Powell, DNR wildlife health program coordinator. "Another result of this disease is that cattle producers across the state face major economic hardships from mandatory testing of cattle and restrictions on cattle movement."

Reducing the number of wild deer infected with bovine TB now, while the problem is in only a few deer in a localized area will protect the long-term health of Minnesota's deer population and minimize the risk of deer-to-deer or deer-to-cattle transmission of the disease.

The DNR has already taken several steps to reduce the risk of deer-to-deer spread of the disease. At the direction of the Minnesota Legislature, the DNR will enforce a recreational deer feeding ban in a 4,000 square mile area of northwestern Minnesota. The ban also fulfills requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a recent aerial survey, DNR conservation officers identified about 22 potentially illegal feeding locations within the recreational feeding ban zone. Conservation officers are developing a plan to enforce the feeding ban. Additional steps to minimize the risk of transmitting bovine TB include a cost-sharing program to assist cattle producers in installing deer-proof fencing around stored feed.

To further reduce the risk of deer-to-deer or deer-to-cattle transmission, the DNR has contracted with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services to remove potentially infected deer in critical areas where the disease has been found.

"Right now, there is a very small number of deer in a small area that are infected with this disease," Powell said. "We need to remove these deer now to prevent further opportunities for transmission of this disease. Waiting until this fall's hunting season risks further spread of this disease."

USDA Wildlife Services employs teams of trained sharpshooters across the United States who are experienced and skilled in efficiently removing large numbers of deer for wildlife damage and health and safety reasons. These teams will take deer on public land and will also work with landowners to take deer on private land with the landowner's permission. Sharpshooters will not enter private property without written permission.

"We understand that this may have a negative short-term affect on deer hunting on some properties. However, the risk to the deer herd and the cattle industry is too great to wait," Powell said. "Temporarily reducing deer numbers in highly localized areas will minimize the chance that this disease will begin to spread through deer-to-deer or deer-to-livestock contact,"

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) downgraded the state's bovine TB status from "free" to "modified accredited advanced" in 2006. As a result, cattle producers across the state face mandatory testing of cattle and restrictions on cattle movement. The discovery of two additional bovine TB-infected livestock operations, as well as the increased number of infected wild deer, has put the state at greater risk to drop another level in status to "modified accredited" in 2007.

"The cattle industry cannot afford to wait for action to help prevent the spread of this disease," said Tom Pyfferoen, president of the Minnesota Cattlemen's Association. "Cattle producers are facing enormous economic hardships due to this disease and the sooner Minnesota regains its bovine TB status, the sooner we can begin rebuilding the cattle industry in this area."

After the sharp-shooting effort, the DNR will continue to issue shooting permits to interested landowners in the affected areas on a case-by-case basis. Next fall, the DNR will define a special permit area that will encompass the Bovine TB Management Zone, and use special hunts, permits and extended seasons to allow hunters to help manage the disease in wild deer.

All deer taken will be tested for bovine TB. Meat from deer with no obvious bovine TB infection will be salvaged and released for human consumption. DNR will provide information and food safety guidelines for proper handling and cooking of venison.

Cooking meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees destroys the bacteria. When field dressing all game, the DNR recommends the use of gloves to prevent exposure to a number of diseases.