Hunters take deer to test for wasting disease

Virgil Chilson, Erik Hildebrand
Virgil Chilson, left, and DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand load a carcass at Chilson's property into the back of Hildebrand's truck in rural Oronoco. Chilson is one of many landowners assisting in the harvest of deer for CWD testing. The state confirmed the first case of CWD in whitetail deer in the area in late January.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

A couple hundred feet from their front porch in Oronoco, Virgil and Marilyn Chilson watch, and wait, for whitetail deer.

"They'll probably come right up this path," Marilyn Chilson said. "Sometimes, they do, sometimes they go right up the road."

As she predicted, a short while later 4 or 5 deer appear on the road and head to the huge cribs in which the Chilsons store corn from harvest time.

As the deer approach the corn crib to feed, the couple's son Travis, and his friend Zeb Schutz take aim from a nearby shed.

They fire three shots. Zeb misses, but Travis hits one a little later. After cleaning the animal, they hang it on a tree. A day later, officials from the state Department of Natural Resources will take the deer to test if from chronic wasting disease.

The fatal brain disease, also referred to as CWD, was found in one deer last fall south of Pine Island. It can also affect elk and moose. Beginning Monday, state officials will order a deer-feeding ban Monday to reduce the spread from deer-to-deer.

When the DNR began issuing landowners deer-hunting special permits so officials could test the animals for chronic wasting disease, the Chilsons didn't hesitate to participate. The permits allow landowners to shoot whitetail deer as part of a special hunt.

David Pauly
David Pauly, the regional coordinator of the MN Department of Natural Resources, takes a deer head at the DNR lab in the Rochester regional headquarters where the lymph nodes will be extracted for testing.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

Landowners also are authorized to allow other hunters onto their property to hunt. Later this month, the department will decide whether to bring in sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I'll tell ya' this right out, I'm really glad that the DNR is testing all this," said Virgil Chilson, who appreciates the effort to remove any sick deer.

If the test on the deer Travis Chilson shot comes back negative, the department will return the deer to the family so they can process the meat.

The DNR is working with landowners like the Chilsons to harvest roughly 900 deer in a 10-square-mile area that stretches from Rochester to Wanamingo to Rochester.

A CWD outbreak doesn't pose a risk to humans, but the disease is progressively fatal for deer, elk and moose. There is no known vaccine or treatment.

Removing lymph nodes
DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand removes the lymph nodes and extracts a tooth from a deer for testing of Chronic Wasting Disease at the Rochester DNR regional headquarters. The state confirmed the first case of CWD in whitetail deer in the area in late January.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

So far, the department has issued 125 permits. It collected 41 deer, but none have tested positive for the disease.

Officials have been working around the clock to explain the special harvest to residents.

"We issue what we call carcass tags for the deer that are taken," DNR wildlife supervisor David Pauly recently explained to Andy Sems, whose house sits on 35 acres of land in Oronoco.

"There's an unlimited number of deer anyone who's part of this permit process can take," Paul told Sems. "Although we only give five to begin with, that can be replenished at any time for any amount."

Lymph nodes
DNR wildlife health specialist Erik Hildebrand removed lymph nodes and extracts a tooth from a deer for testing of Chronic Wasting Disease at the Rochester DNR regional headquarters. The state confirmed the first case of CWD in whitetail deer in the area in late January.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

Sems is not an avid hunter. In fact, he's never hunted deer before. But he and his father-in-law have decided to help the DNR. They plan on hunting this weekend.

"It's very tearing to think that you have to shoot something to preserve or help it in reality," Sems said. "I'm not really interested in killing animals, but I also don't want to have a group of very sick and ill animals surrounding us if there's something we can do about it. So if we have to harvest and kill a few, then unfortunately you have to."

At the DNR's office in Rochester, Pauly pulls a deer onto the warehouse floor. Outside, there's a flatbed with about 30 more. Another half dozen or so are in a cooler nearby. That keeps them from freezing solid.

Pauly crouches on the ground, pulls the animals head back and makes a couple incisions on both sides of its neck. He's looking for the lymph nodes to test for CWD.

Tagged carcasses
Deer carcasses are tagged by what means they were gathered, either road kill or hunted as well as the location the deer was taken.
MPR Photo/Nate Howard

The lymph nodes are each about the size of a grape. Pauly pulls both of them out, places them into a marked bag and seals the sample.

He'll do this hundreds of times in the next few weeks until all the results are back and the department can assess the extent of the disease in the area.

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