Bovine TB results offer cause for optimism

None of the 450 deer killed this past winter by sharpshooters in the area of a minor bovine tuberculosis outbreak near Skime, Minn., tested positive for the disease.
Michelle Carstensen, wildlife health program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the lab results mark the first time the disease hasn't shown up in winter sampling since sharpshooting began in 2007. The DNR has contracted with U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to remove deer the past four winters.

"To me, that's a very good sign," Carstensen said. "Maybe we've turned the corner."

A contagious respiratory disease, bovine TB first showed up in a handful of cattle herds near Skime in 2005. Since then, the DNR has sampled more than 2,700 deer for the disease, and 27 have tested positive.

All but one of the positive cases have come from the so-called "core area" near Skime. Last fall, a 3½-year-old buck taken by a hunter just west of the core tested positive, so the DNR expanded the sharpshooting area to collect additional samples this past winter, Carstensen said.

She said the DNR sampled about 150 deer in the area around that new case outside the core.

No sharpshooting?

Carstensen said the DNR will continue to sample deer in the core and adjacent areas of northwestern Minnesota, but it's possible that sharpshooting won't be necessary next winter. As part of a new agreement with USDA, the goal is to collect 200 samples this fall inside the core, 300 adjacent to the core and 500 samples in a larger area, the "Modified Accredited" cattle marketing zone, which extends roughly from south of Grygla, Minn., to the Canadian border and includes parts of Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Beltrami and Marshall counties.

Previously, Carstensen said, USDA wanted the DNR to collect 1,800 samples this fall - 1,500 inside the "Modified Accredited" zone and 300 in the core and adjacent area.

The only reason sharpshooting would resume, Carstensen said, would be if fall sampling produces more positive cases or if hunters fail to provide enough deer to meet the testing goals.

Carstensen said the DNR will staff check stations in the testing areas from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the full deer season. In the past, the DNR has only collected samples the first week and second weekend.

She said the DNR also will meet with members of a local working group to encourage hunters to submit deer for sampling.

"We want to get every sample we can to avoid sharpshooting, which is both expensive and unpopular," Carstensen said. "We're going to hold out the carrot that if we do this, we won't have to use sharpshooters."

Expanded hours

Carstensen said the DNR in the past has heard complaints from hunters who couldn't provide samples for testing because they came after hours, when staff wasn't onsite. That criticism likely will continue, but Carstensen said 10 hours a day should provide enough time for hunters to register deer and provide samples.

Also, she said, the online registration that will be available in much of the state for the first time this fall won't be offered in the areas where the DNR is collecting samples.

"Otherwise, we'd never see their deer," she said.

The DNR also will have collection boxes available during the archery season, the youth season, the early antlerless season and muzzleloader season for hunters to submit deer heads for testing, Carstensen said. That way, she said, hunters can participate even if DNR staffers aren't onsite.

In related news, the DNR sampled 11 elk that sharpshooters killed this past winter near Lancaster, Minn. All of the elk tested negative for both bovine TB and chronic wasting disease, Carstensen said.