Collars to be used to track disease

Posted: November 7, 2017 at 1 a.m.

MINNEAPOLIS — Wildlife crews will swoop down in helicopters above southeastern Minnesota early next year to capture and collar more than 100 deer to study how far they roam and what corridors they follow.

The chronic wasting disease research project by the Department of Natural Resources is being launched with $350,000 in emergency funding to help stop the largest-ever wasting disease outbreak in Minnesota’s wild deer population.

The department will be seeking cooperation from private landowners to carry out the work on hilly, forested land that rings Fillmore County’s 371-square-mile disease management zone. The zone was created last fall after routine testing of hunter-killed deer discovered a cluster of infected animals.

State wildlife researchers have joined the fight with a plan to net 115 deer and place GPS tracking collars around the animals’ necks.

Deer disperse in unique ways from the territories where they were born, said research scientist Chris Jennelle of the agency’s wildlife health program. Data from the collars will paint a real-life picture of dispersal patterns useful for setting meaningful boundaries for disease surveillance and special deer herd management techniques.

Understanding how deer move across the landscape also will help computer scientists create predictive models of how the disease could spread, Jennelle said. The planned study has drawn interest and collaboration from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

“We want to be as precise as possible,” Jennelle said. “It will help us fine-tune surveillance and potential management tools.”

Michelle Carstensen, the agency’s wildlife health program supervisor, said landowner participation is crucial because public land in the target area is scarce.

Chronic wasting disease is a prion disease, similar to mad cow disease in cattle or scrapie in sheep, that affects deer, elk, caribou and moose. It’s fatal to animals and there are no treatments or vaccines. Whitetails can carry the contagious disease for a year or more before developing symptoms of drastic weight loss, stumbling, drooling and listlessness.

There have been no reported cases of infection in people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intensified its chronic wasting disease guidance recently by saying new studies have raised concerns that consumption of meat from an infected animal may be a risk to people.