Central Minnesota struggles with disposal of diseased deer

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, October 8, 2019

BRAINERD — Wildlife officials in central Minnesota are discovering it’s not easy to get rid of deer carcasses infected with chronic wasting disease.

Minnesota has been wrestling with the disease since 2016, when it was first confirmed in wild herds in the southeastern corner of the state. This year, the ailment was confirmed in a wild deer in Crow Wing County north of the Twin Cities, the first case outside of the state’s southeastern region. Now every deer shot within a 13-mile radius must be tested.

The discovery has created myriad questions about what the county should do with infected carcasses.

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Legislators have set aside $50,000 to set up dumpsters. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is supposed to empty the dumpsters and take the carcasses to landfills.

But Minnesota Public Radio reports that Marv Stroschein, the Crow Wing County landfill manager, refused to accept any infected deer. He said he’s worried prions could seep out of the carcasses and infect the surrounding soil and eventually more animals. Prions are deformed proteins in deer’s brains that cause chronic wasting disease.

The Department of Natural Resources looked into trucking Crow Wing County carcasses to a landfill in an adjoining county, but officials there were hesitant about accepting them after Stroschein refused to take them.

Michelle Carstensen, the department’s wildlife health group leader who is in charge of transporting carcasses from dumpsters to landfills, told the radio network that she was afraid Minnesota would end up like Wisconsin, where only 13 landfills accept deer waste.

Dan Kroll, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ solid waste coordinator, said landfills are afraid of being held liable for escaped prions.

Kroll said hunters in some areas now must drive 80 miles to get rid of their deer bones and many simply toss the bodies in ditches or smuggle them into prohibited landfills disguised as household trash.

Weeks before Minnesota’s bow season began last month, Carstensen of the Minnesota DNR offered Stroschein a 15-year-old incinerator to burn the carcasses. Stroschein accepted, although he told MPR that his workers had difficulty lighting the incinerator.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told the radio network that incinerators are too inefficient to serve as a large-scale solution for dealing with thousands of infected or potentially infected carcasses.

“When it comes to landfills and carcass disposal, scalability is a huge issue that needs to be addressed,” Osterholm said.

Chronic wasting disease attacks deer’s brains, causing them to grow thin and act strangely before killing them. Nothing suggests the disease can infect humans, although experts worry it could eventually jump the species barrier like mad cow disease.