Students travel across Minnesota to test deer for fatal disease

About 80 University of Minnesota students went to locations across southeastern Minnesota to test for chronic wasting disease in deer.

by Lew Blank

With deer hunting season at its peak, dozens of University of Minnesota students ventured out to parking lots, gas stations and forestry offices across the state to test deer for a lethal disease.

The project, held the first and third weekend of November in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, allowed about 80 University students to combat a deadly disease that poses a threat to the state’s deer populations. The students helped measure the prevalence of the disease across the state.

Chronic wasting disease — an infectious disease comparable to mad cow disease that is caused by an abnormal protein — has been spreading in wild deer across Minnesota since 2010, said Larissa Minicucci, a University veterinary professor who coordinated student recruitment for the project.

Although the disease has a relatively low prevalence in Minnesota, it has been steadily increasing over the years and always results in death. The disease has no known vaccine or treatment and it can significantly reduce the size of deer populations in the long term.

This could harm Minnesota’s hunting and tourism industry and potentially pose a health threat to those who eat deer meat, said Jeffrey Tillery, a University senior who participated in CWD testing.

Over the weekend, University students were stationed across southeastern Minnesota in locations with a high prevalence of CWD to help stop the spread of the disease.

As hunters brought in the deer to the testing stations — a state requirement in parts of Minnesota — students collected tissue samples and asked hunters about the locations where they shot the deer.

The testing locations included a Menards in Rochester, a DNR forestry office in Preston and a BP gas station in Houston.

Direct interaction with hunters provides the students with important training for their careers in wildlife management, Tillery said.

“[This project] allows college students, who are the next generation of people working in the DNR or government agencies … to be interacting with the public,” he said. “That face-to-face [interaction] is going to be really important in knowing how to communicate with your constituents.”

Using the results of the students’ CWD testing, the DNR will track which Minnesota locations have the highest prevalence of CWD and if the age and gender of the deer had any correlation with the occurrence of the disease, Minicucci said.

Using this information, the DNR will determine specific quarantine areas where they will isolate the populations and potentially kill some of the deer in order to contain the disease, said Lou Cornicelli, the wildlife research and policy manager at the Minnesota DNR’s division of fish and wildlife.

Through this project, students have learned strategies to appeal to stakeholders like hunters, biologists and environmental agencies, Minicucci said.

“They’re talking to hunters from various backgrounds, people from different ethnic groups [and] people with different philosophies on hunting,” she said. “They’re learning the communications skills that are really essential to being a professional in wildlife or veterinary medicine.”

The experience will also help University students build a wider network with professionals and potential clients in the field of veterinary medicine, Cornicelli said.

“I know so many students that have gone on to professional careers, and … getting to work at the test station was a big part of … setting that foundation,” he said. “These folks that come up to a test station are eventually going to be [their] clients somewhere.”