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DNR sets late-month deer season in NW Minnesota

The Department of Natural Resources is offering a special winter deer season near Skime beginning late this month in an effort to further reduce deer populations in the core area of a bovine tuberculosis outbreak.

The disease originated in a handful of cattle herds in the Skime area and later spread to nearby deer herds.

The hunt, set for Deer Permit Area 101 and open to both bucks and does, is scheduled to begin Dec. 29 and continue through Jan. 13.

The DNR then will conduct aerial surveys to determine deer densities near Skime and the surrounding management area, officials said. Once that's complete, federal sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services likely will go in to further reduce deer herds in late February and March.

Sharpshooters last winter killed about 500 deer in the Skime area. This time around, the DNR also aims to let hunters help out with the reduction effort.

Three new suspects

According to Dr. Michelle Carstensen, wildlife health program coordinator for the DNR, the upcoming special hunt comes on the heels of a fall testing campaign in which three deer, all adult bucks, tested "presumptive positive" for bovine TB. The DNR collected tissue samples from more than 1,100 deer during an early antlerless season and the regular rifle season.

All three of the infected deer came from the core area near Skime, where bovine TB first was found in a handful of cattle herds in 2005, Carstensen said. Since then, the DNR has collected tissue samples from more than 3,000 deer in the Skime area. Test results confirmed 13 deer with the disease.

The three suspect samples, once they're officially confirmed in several weeks, will bring that total to 16. The disease also was found in eight cattle herds, the DNR said.

Limited options

Where infected cattle herds were depopulated, Carstensen says reducing populations and preventing interaction such as nose-to-nose contact are the only tools managers have for minimizing the disease in wild deer.

"The idea is to keep the pressure on" the deer herd, she said of the late December season. "We want to minimize the risk of (bovine TB) becoming established in that deer herd. The three additional deer are still concerning. We don't know how many additional deer are out there" carrying the disease.

Besides liberal deer seasons, the DNR has banned recreational feeding in a large part of northwestern Minnesota.

According to Carstensen, the opening of the upcoming hunt coincides with the New Year's long weekend and spans three weekends. Whether hunters participate remains to be seen.

"It's going to be weather dependent," she said. "This is obviously a nontraditional hunt, so we don't know how to predict what we'll see. Hopefully, the timing will encourage people to be out."

Other details

Hunters may use any valid license to take deer for the special season, Carstensen said, and must register the deer at either the Skime Store or Riverfront Station in Wannaska.

Deer also can be registered at the headquarters of the Thief Lake and Red Lake wildlife management areas.

DNR staff will be on hand in Skime and Wannaska during the weekends of the hunt to collect tissue samples, Carstensen said. During the week, hunters who shoot a deer with lung lesions or other signs of bovine TB should contact DNR staff at Thief Lake or Red Lake.

Expanded hunting seasons and follow-up sharpshooting campaigns might not be popular with hunters who will face reduced deer populations, but DNR officials say reducing the risk of bovine TB becoming established and spreading in the deer population is crucial.

"In the short term, that means deer densities in the bovine TB area will need to be kept low," Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the DNR, said Tuesday in a news release. "However, Minnesota's deer populations are resilient, and while we recognize that dramatic reductions in populations won't be popular with everyone, history tells us deer rebound very quickly."

Fencing update

Meantime, Carstensen says the DNR continues to work with cattle owners, USDA and the state Board of Animal Health to minimize interaction between livestock and deer.

Minnesota lawmakers during the 2006 legislative session passed a bill providing eligible farmers up to $5,000 worth of material to construct high fences to keep deer out of feed supplies.

The DNR provides the material and technical assistance in constructing the eight-foot wire fences.

Out of 21 cattle operations in the core area, Carstensen said, the deer-proof fences have been installed at 10 sites.

Another 10 fences are slated for completion next spring once the frost goes out, she said.

'Data driven'

Carstensen said the extent of a late winter sharpshooting campaign would depend on what happens during the upcoming special hunt.

"This is going to be data driven, so we need to see how we do," she said. "If hunters shoot 200 deer, and we don't find any additional (TB) suspects, and the survey shows no concentrations of deer, the sharpshooting may not happen."

Still, it's likely deer will concentrate in certain areas as winter progresses.

"We expect to find pockets of deer, and that's why sharpshooting is slated to happen later in the winter," she said.