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Deer in TB area show resilience

THIEF RIVER FALLS - Deer populations in the core area of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in northwestern Minnesota remain high enough to justify the need for federal sharpshooters to kill additional animals this winter, the Department of Natural R...

THIEF RIVER FALLS - Deer populations in the core area of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak in northwestern Minnesota remain high enough to justify the need for federal sharpshooters to kill additional animals this winter, the Department of Natural Resources says.

Sharpshooting is set to begin the week of Feb. 11.

According to Dr. Michelle Carstenson, wildlife health program coordinator for the DNR, the estimated deer population in the core area near Skime, Minn., stands at 806 - an average of about five deer per section - based on results of an aerial survey conducted the week of Jan. 21.

That's down only slightly from last year, when an aerial survey produced an estimated population of 950 deer, or six deer per section, Carstenson said.

Factoring in a margin of error of plus or minus 133 deer, the population is statistically unchanged from last year, she said.

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The difference this year, Carstenson said, is the deer are more spread out than they were during last year's survey.

The core area covers about six square miles, while a larger management zone outside the core covers a 10-mile radius.

Surprise finding

Speaking Monday at a TB task force meeting in Thief River Falls, Carstenson said the most recent estimate comes as a surprise, given the extensive efforts to kill deer in the area near Skime, where bovine TB first was found in a handful of cattle herds in July 2005.

The TB task force, which meets periodically, includes representatives from the DNR, the state and federal departments of agriculture, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, cattle producers and hunters with land in the TB area.

"My expectation was that numbers would be significantly down," Carstenson said. "I didn't think it would be non-statistically different than last year."

It's only speculation, but Carstenson says there are several reasons deer numbers haven't changed much. Last winter was mild, overall, which likely aided reproduction, and a feeding ban covering about 4,000 square miles of northwestern Minnesota could have redistributed deer.

The DNR sampled 72 sections of land during its recent aerial survey, and most of the deer were congregated on state wildlife management area land, near state food plots and in the ag country near Skime, Carstenson said.

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The highest number of deer sampled was 23 in a section northeast of Skime.

TB status report

An infectious respiratory disease, bovine TB has been found in nine cattle herds in Roseau and Beltrami counties since July 2005.

The DNR has tested more than 3,000 deer for the disease since November 2005. The testing has produced 13 positive cases, along with four suspect deer from this past fall that likely will bring the total to 17 once lab results become final.

In an effort to help the state regain its TB-free status, the DNR is working with ag interests and others to reduce deer numbers in the affected area and construct fences to minimize the interaction between deer and cattle.

TB-free status is an important distinction when marketing cattle.

Sharpshooters last winter killed 488 deer near Skime. Liberal hunting regulations also are part of the mix, and the DNR in 2007 established a new hunting area, Permit Area 101, which included the TB core and surrounding areas.

Hunters have taken nearly 1,600 deer in Permit Area 101 between an early October season, liberalized regulations during the firearm season and a special late-season hunt that ended in mid-January.

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Still, deer numbers remain high.

The good news, Carstenson says, is that all of the positive deer cases have come from the TB core area, and the prevalence of the disease remains low.

"The geographical distribution did not change, and we do not have any evidence of younger animals infected, which is good," she said.

Fencing update

Minimizing the risk of deer coming into contact with cattle also is part of the TB strategy. Using $54,000 appropriations the Legislature made in 2007 and again in 2008, the DNR to date has constructed 10-foot fences at 11 cattle sites in the TB management area. Another dozen are proposed for this year, but the actual work won't be completed until 2009.

Mike DonCarlos, DNR wildlife program manager, said the fencing program could be expanded to areas outside the TB management zone if the DNR and state Board of Animal Health can secure funding. DonCarlos also attended Monday's meeting in Thief River Falls.

"It's all very preliminary at this point," DonCarlos said. "If the federal money is available, we'll try to go for it. If not, we'll have to work with the Legislature."

Asked why only 11 fences have been constructed to date, DonCarlos said the process takes time.

"Funding is part of it," he said. "You don't just go out and decide today to build a fence and build it tomorrow. I don't think we've been an impediment beyond the money. I think we've done all we could."

Deer in crosshairs

Meantime, Carstenson says the DNR plans to continue its aggressive strategy for reducing deer numbers in the core area to keep bovine TB from spreading. Because the latest survey found few large concentrations of deer, she says sharpshooters likely will have a tougher time removing as many animals as they did last winter.

There's no set goal beyond targeting concentrations in the core area to reduce risks of deer-to-deer transmission.

"This continued pressure is what's going to be needed to bring these numbers down and keep them at lower levels," she said.

The DNR again is contracting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Service to administer the sharpshooting campaign that begins next week.

This year's contract is for $100,000, Carstenson said, compared with $130,000 last year; USDA and DNR share in the costs.

Last year's sharpshooting campaign produced considerable local opposition before some of the landowners warmed up to the effort. This year, opposition to the sharpshooters appears to be less widespread, DNR officials say.

As with last year, sharpshooters won't go on private land without permission.

All of the deer killed will be tested for bovine TB, and the meat from animals that appear healthy will be donated to people who request it.

The effort will start in the core area, Carstenson says, but sharpshooters are prepared to move outside the core if necessary.

The feeding ban also remains in effect, she says, and the DNR plans to offer liberal hunting regulations in the TB area next fall.

-- To receive a deer:

Anyone interested in receiving a deer should call Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area headquarters at (218) 222-3747. Deer are field-dressed with the hides intact - not processed venison.

Reach Dokken at 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: HUNTING
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