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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is intensifying efforts to limit the spread of a fatal deer disease in southeastern Minnesota.

The DNR will hold two three-day hunts in a Southeast Minnesota disease management area in and around Fillmore County this month. State officials also will offer shooting permits to landowners in the area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also is working with landowners to remove deer from areas where deer were found with the fatal neurological disease.

The extended hunts will be Dec. 21 to Dec. 23 and Dec. 28 to Dec. 30 in deer permit areas 603, 347 and 348, and portions of deer permit areas 343 and 345 that are south of Interstate 90. That includes parts of Houston, Winona, Olmsted and Mower counties.

The boundary includes Stewartville to the northwest, Lewiston to the northeast, Mabel to the southeast and Spring Valley to the west. The hunting zone extends from I-90 to the Iowa border.

Chronic wasting disease first was detected in southeast Minnesota’s wild deer population about two years ago. Initially, it appeared the cases were isolated to a cluster of deer near Preston. However, at least 11 new cases from in and around the CWD management area in Fillmore County were found this fall, bringing the total cases to 28 since it was discovered.

The disease likely was spread to other clusters of deer by infected bucks, which tend to travel along rivers during the mating season, according to MnDNR officials. All the new cases this fall so far have been bucks.

Managing the disease calls for reducing the number of mature bucks in the disease management area, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager. Mature bucks are sought after by hunters.

“They also spread the disease, so it’s trying to balance those,” Cornicelli said.

Infected deer are highly contagious while still alive and gut piles left behind by hunters can leave infectious traces of the disease to other deer even years later.

CWD is fatal to deer, elk and moose but is not known to affect human health. There is no cure or vaccine for the disease. A CWD-positive deer survives only about two years after being infected. Areas with CWD-infected deer can experience steep herd declines, which could affect Minnesota’s billion-dollar hunting industry.

Cornicelli pointed to Wisconsin, where in some areas, about half of male deer are infected.

“States that have CWD established in their wild deer populations have seen declines in both deer populations and deer hunter numbers,” he said. “We’re early enough not to fall into that camp.”

Cornicelli said the CWD-positive cases in and around Fillmore County show the disease is persisting there, and the DNR needs to act quickly to contain the disease while it’s in Southeast Minnesota.

The main strategy to deal with limited-distribution of CWD is to cull deer populations in the area. The hunts might help, but the key to curtailing the disease is help from landowners, DNR officials said.

“There’s very little public land in this area,” he said. “Cooperation with landowners is the key to our success and also our greatest challenge.”

DNR officials are holding a public meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Fillmore Central School Auditorium in Preston to discuss CWD and strategies to curtail its spread.

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