Audit of Minnesota’s Board of Animal Health is Progress, But Not a Win

May 1, 2018 | by Nick Pinizzotto

When I read the 51-page report from Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor stemming from their audit of the state’s Board of Animal Health (BAH) and its regulation of deer farms, it brought about some mixed emotions. My first feeling was one of accomplishment because it was the National Deer Alliance that originally called for the audit on the heels of a scathing February 20, 2017 article penned by reporter Tony Kennedy of the Minnesota Star Tribune. The article was written after an outbreak of chronic wasting disease (CWD) on five captive deer farms, and it shed light on what appeared to be an overly friendly relationship between the BAH and its constituents. This was particularly troubling considering the threat to wild deer herds, and the resulting need for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to allocate staff and financial resources to conduct CWD surveillance and management.

The cover letter to the report specifically called out the challenging relationship between the DNR and BAH. It stated: “We also found that the board has a strained relationship with the Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for managing Minnesota’s wild deer and elk. We recommend that the board and the department draft a memorandum of understanding to facilitate communication and data sharing between the two agencies.”

After contemplating the results of the audit, my emotions swung more toward a combination of disappointment, and eventually, hopefulness. While the report detailed a number of blatant failures by the BAH to adequately do its job, there was encouraging news that the agency was already working hard to change its ways. This particular statement from the report stood out. “The former assistant director responsible for the deer and elk program ran the program from the early 2000s until he retired in June 2017. The new assistant director with responsibility for the program has implemented a number of changes to the board’s oversight of deer and elk farms since assuming her position.” The former assistant director was Paul Anderson, who retired last year, and the new assistant director is Dr. Beth Thompson.

It’s scary to think about how the previous missteps by the BAH may have impacted the spread of CWD across the state. To be fair, maybe it didn’t impact it at all, and we may never have the answer. Still, problems ranging from lackluster testing and recordkeeping to improper or damaged fencing leading to escapes apparently plagued the agency for years, and that’s simply not acceptable. The rules were created for a reason, but they are only effective if they are followed and properly enforced. Clearly that wasn’t happening, and unfortunately it took and expensive and time consuming audit to point it out.

Someone approached me at a recent meeting I was attending in D.C. and suggested that this was a big win for wild deer, but I don’t see it that way. Ideally, agencies charged with regulating the captive deer industry will do their jobs thoroughly and accurately 100% of the time, and we don’t find ourselves in the position to have to call for an audit. That would be a true win for wild deer, and the captive deer industry for that matter.

We applaud the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor for performing what appears to be a fair and thorough audit. They didn’t have to do that just because we demanded it. Now our hope is that the BAH continues to improve its performance so that we don’t find ourselves in this situation again. We also hope that states with similar issues are taking notice. Prevention is always more cost-effective than correction, and our wild deer resource deserves it.