Deer Disease

February 20, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Deer are a part of the equation because they can catch the disease from close contact with cattle feed sources, and spread the disease if they go somewhere else to eat.

Deer are a part of the equation because they can catch the disease from close contact with cattle feed sources, and spread the disease if they go somewhere else to eat.

In northwestern Minnesota near the town of Skime, sharpshooters recently completed a culling effort to reduce white-tailed deer numbers. Nearly 500 deer were killed over a two-month period.

The campaign was a response to concerns over the potential spread of bovine tuberculosis, a chronic bacterial disease that primarily infects cattle, but an spread to deer under the right conditions.

That is in fact what happened in Minnesota. Bovine TB, traced to imports from Texas, was first detected in cattle, and later identified in wild deer. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources developed a plan to reduce the deer population in the immediate area to reduce the likelihood that infected deer would carry the disease to other cattle operations, or spread it within the deer population.

Since the edge of the bovine TB “hot zone” is only 50 miles from North Dakota, I sometimes get questions on whether deer could spread the disease across the border, and what would happen if bovine TB did show up in North Dakota.

The short version, according to Dr. Erika Butler, the State Game and Fish Department’s wildlife veterinarian, is that deer are not likely to move the disease across the border. Currently, North Dakota is free of bovine TB, and if it does show up here, it will likely come via importation of infected cattle. Many precautions are in place to prevent this, but if the disease does spread into the state, the Game and Fish Department, along with state and federal agriculture agencies, would likely start a deer removal operation similar to what occurred in Minnesota.

Prior to the bovine TB discovery in Minnesota, and another recent detection in South Dakota, Butler says the Game and Fish Department only tested deer that were “animals of interest,” or those for which cause of death was suspicious. “We’ve now prioritized the eastern third of North Dakota for TB testing,” Butler said, which means expanded sampling including deer brought in by hunters for chronic wasting disease testing.

In North Dakota, while the Game and Fish Department discourages recreational feeding of deer, the practice is not illegal. The same is true for baiting deer on private land for the purpose of hunting.

In North Dakota, while the Game and Fish Department discourages recreational feeding of deer, the practice is not illegal. The same is true for baiting deer on private land for the purpose of hunting.

By itself, TB is not a major concern within a wild deer population. It is not always fatal to infected deer, and is not a risk to humans as long as meat is cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature that reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds. Hunters should also wear protective gloves when field-dressing deer.

In cattle, however, the presence of bovine TB can be devastating to producers, who may lose animals and income and have their herds depopulated and/or quarantined from markets. Cattle that have the disease can spread it to other cattle through contaminated food sources.

Deer are a part of the equation because they can catch the disease from close contact with cattle feed sources, and spread the disease if they go somewhere else to eat.

Protecting feed sources was part of the Minnesota effort. Cattle producers in the area were asked to fence their feeding areas so deer could not get in. The Minnesota DNR offered a cost-share program to help pay for fencing materials.

While baiting, or putting out food to attract deer for hunting purposes, is illegal in Minnesota, recreational feeding is permitted and was quite common in the area where bovine TB was found. This prompted the Minnesota DNR to also ban feeding of deer in a 4,000 square mile area around the farms. This reduces the likelihood of disease spread between deer by eliminating the unnatural, close-contact situations that feeding stations or bait piles encourage.

In North Dakota, while the Game and Fish Department discourages recreational feeding of deer, the practice is not illegal. The same is true for baiting deer on private land for the purpose of hunting.

Game and Fish, however, does not allow baiting on its state wildlife management areas, and has phased out feeding stations on most of the 200,000 acres it manages. Several other state and federal agencies do not allow baiting or feeding on lands they manage.

The Game and Fish Department initiated its baiting and feeding policies as one way to reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease transmission. While CWD has not been detected in either wild or farmed deer or elk in North Dakota, eliminating baiting and most feeding on WMAs reduces the likelihood of CWD spread if it is detected in the state.

While bovine TB is also not present in North Dakota, the ongoing effort to eliminate it in Minnesota is a too-close-for-comfort examples. If repeated here, it would mean reduced localized deer populations and lost recreational opportunities for citizens, and would tap Game and Fish Department money, time and energy that could certainly be used elsewhere.


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