ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Chronic wasting disease has dramatically changed deer hunting in southeastern Minnesota and around the state, but the extra chances to shoot deer because of the always-fatal neurological disease have scarcely put a dent in deer numbers.
The first CWD case was found in an old doe shot in late 2010 near Pine Island. The Department of Natural Resources immediately began a major effort to test, test and test deer shot in the area. After three years of testing, it was virtually certain that doe was the only case.
We breathed easier but also knew that it was becoming more and more prevalent in parts of Wisconsin and other states. Could Minnesota be lucky to have the Pine Island doe be the only one?
In 2016, the answer was no.
CWD was found in a few deer shot near Preston. Since then, the DNR has found more than 100 cases so far out of about 90,000 tested statewide. It’s also been found in a few other parts of the state, but most have been found in the southeast.
Testing became mandatory for the first few years for many deer shot in the affected areas and surrounding parts.
With the COVID pandemic last year, however, the DNR had to rely on hunters voluntarily bringing in deer heads for testing. Not many hunters complied. Fortunately, those few deer found positive were in the already-infected areas, so so far, it doesn’t appear as though CWD has spread.
One of the DNR’s major strategies in the Preston area after the first positive tests was to give hunters more chances to shoot a deer, up to five or more in a year. It also allowed more days to hunt after the regular season. It instituted a ban on moving some parts of deer out of the area and told people to stop feeding deer. In areas with the highest concentrations of CWD, the DNR brought in sharpshooters.
The hope was that shooting more deer would mean fewer chances for deer to spread CWD from their bodily fluids. The feeding ban was to stop deer from congregating and spreading the disease.
Some people said it was too much, the deer herd would be decimated. “We had so many people (saying) ‘you killed all the deer,’” said Ryan Tebo, assistant DNR area wildlife manager. “We fight that all the time -- 'they can shoot five deer, they’re going to murder them all.’”
What really happened?
The DNR aerial count a year after the the first round of additional chances to shoot deer and the sharpshooters found deer numbers in the major CWD area dropped from the high 20s per square mile by only about one fewer per square mile, he said. Outside the area, they dropped only a half a deer per square mile.
“I was one of the people (counting) in the helicopter and it was very obvious that there was no shortage of deer in the area that has so many hunting opportunities,” he said.
Only in a few isolated areas of a few square miles where significant numbers of cases were found were they able to make a real dent in numbers with sharpshooters baiting deer and shooting them at night with rifles and night-vision scopes, he said.
Since then, the DNR hasn’t done any aerial counts but Tebo’s perspective is that deer numbers aren’t really being greatly affected by extra chances to tag more deer.
The problem with those fearing widespread devastation of the herd when they heard hunters could shoot up to five, even more, is they assumed everyone was shooting five, he said. But surveys found scarcely any shot five and most took one, maybe two.
“We can give people a million (permits) but when it comes down to it, people are only going to shoot as many deer as they need or want to,” Tebo said.
The present deer-hunting culture favors shooting only big bucks, he said, but does are the key to controlling populations. They are very productive in the southeastern part of the state, with many having twins, and a few triplets. Many fawn does give birth to a single fawn a year after they are born.
In the future, the DNR wants to see fewer deer.
“The most recent goal-setting process had goals of 20-25 deer per square mile,” according to the DNR. “Our deer model shows that most of the population trends for (the region) are, at a minimum, stable, if not growing.”
With some deer testing positive for CWD in other parts of the state, “it’s hard to stay optimistic when it starts popping up all over the place,” he said.
This year, the DNR is again mandating CWD testing for most deer shot in the first two days of the A and B seasons in the southeast, he said. It is also encouraging anyone with older deer shot at other times to drop heads off at designated places.
Hunting season began with bow hunting a week ago, while the gun seasons begin Nov. 6 and muzzleloading Nov. 27. Bag limits are the most liberal perhaps ever with up to five allowed in the major CWD zones, two in the Whitewater permit area and three in other areas.
That is in sharp contrast to past decades when hunters had to hope to get a permit to shoot antlerless deer because the DNR was trying to increase numbers.
One thing that hints at deer numbers is how many permits are given out each year for landowners to shoot deer before the season begins because deer are causing too much damage to crops. This year, five were given out for Olmsted, Goodhue and Wabasha counties, while other counties have some more. In all, there are maybe 15 to 20, which is close to normal, Tebo said. Besides that, landowners also have to have a plan to get more hunters during regular seasons take deer, especially does, he said.
One specific area that is also looking to reduce deer numbers is the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, that’s part of deer permit area 344. Its goal is to have hunters -- archery, firearms and muzzleloader -- shoot 1,000 deer in the permit area. Last year, they shot 896.
Christine Priest Johnson, assistant WMA manager, said the deer are overeating their habitat, just as they are damaging some farmers’ fields.
“We are seeing higher impacts of the habitat in that area,” she said. The department has been trying to plant more trees in the floodplain but deer wiped out the work.
“Every one of them died in that project because they were eaten by deer,” she said.
The DNR’s efforts to plant acorns for more oaks, a highly prized tree for wildlife, also were for naught. The area was “just excavated, they have been eating every single acorn out of there,” Johnson said.
The same for planting oak seedlings.
“The deer ate every single tree,” she said.
She believes more landowners surrounding the WMA have deer problems. Some, however, just tolerate a little damage because they know they are in deer areas or don’t want to shoot deer in summer when it’s so hard to get deer out of the field fast enough before meat might begin to go bad, she said.
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Rochester Post Bulletin for 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"