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Peterson: Split state bovine TB classification soon

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture could declare Minnesota a split state for bovine tuberculosis control within weeks, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said Saturday.

"We expect by the end of this month or the first of September that the split-state status will be approved by USDA," Peterson, DFL-7th District, said in an interview Saturday. "As far as I know, everything is on track to do that."

The 2008 Legislature set the way by creating a 164-square-mile bovine TB disease management area and a pro-gram to buy out farmers' cattle herds within that area. The area, in Beltrami, Roseau, Lake of the Woods and Mar-shall counties around the Skime community, has been the site of 11 infected beef cattle since the first discovery in 2005.

The state of Minnesota is under the federal designation of Modified Accredited by the USDA, third of five catego-ries which outlines strict regulations for the testing and movement of cattle across state lines for bovine TB.

The state Board of Animal Health hopes USDA will allow the state to be split into two zones, with a concentrated bovine TB management area in northwest Minnesota, and classifying the rest of the state as TB Free, with no restrictions.

The push started this spring, when Peterson and state Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, held a private meeting with key players at the State Capitol to outline a process leading to the upcoming decision.

"If we wouldn't have had that meeting ... they would have drawn a line at Highway 2 and everything north of Highway 2 would have been in this stricter zone," Peterson said. Such a move would have affected thousands of cattle in northern Minnesota.

"And we wouldn't have been able to buy all those herds out," said Peterson, chairman of the U.S. House Agricul-ture Committee. "This way, we can go in and buy out everybody's that's there. And the people who don't sell out are going to have to fence, and there's money for fencing."

Officials suspect the highly contagious disease is being passed to cattle from open-ranging whitetail deer. The fencing is needed to keep cattle and deer separate. Also, the USDA and state Department of Natural Resources have conducted special hunts to cull the deer herd.

"We're not going to be out there letting people raise cattle where the deer can get into," Peterson said.

As of the end of July, 45 herd buyout contracts had been signed by producers in the management area, who re-ceive $500 per head plus $75 per animal per year until Minnesota regains TB-Free status. All animals that are part of the buyout must be removed from the zone or be slaughtered by Jan. 31.

The Board of Animal Health estimates that 67 producers in the zone are eligible for the buyout, which is volun-tary, and that 6,800 cattle will be removed.

"The Feds think that we are way ahead of this," said the Detroit Lakes Democrat. "They've complimented us, that the state of Minnesota has done the best job of anybody that's ever confronted this. They're happy with what we're doing."

Isolating bovine TB management to the area where the disease has surfaced -- it's not been found anywhere else in Minnesota -- will quicken the process of declaring the whole state TB-Free, he said.

"We think in five years that we'll have this eradicated," Peterson said.

Peterson said Skoe played a crucial role in gaining Minnesota legislative support for measures to isolate the area and buyout cattle in the affected area.

"Rod Skoe and I have been working on this behind the scenes," Peterson said, as the two called for a meeting which included Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Veterinary Services, and his top staff; State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann; and, state DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten.

"Nobody knew we had this meeting," Peterson said, with the meeting held on a Monday when the Legislature wasn't in session.

"We needed to get everybody in the meeting and to agree to this plan," he said. "That's where that smaller, split-state area came out of."

As part of that meeting, the DNR was asked to continue efforts to cull deer in the zone.

Holsten was asked "to make sure we were shooting as many deer up there as we could," Peterson said. "Out of that meeting, they brought in a helicopter and shot deer."

The Ag Committee chairman said Holsten was reluctant to shoot deer from a helicopter because of the potential public reaction.

"I said the hell with the reaction," Peterson remembers. "That would be good, if people see that the DNR's com-ing in there with a helicopter and shooting deer, then the farmers are going to be more confident that we're going to get ahead of this."

Peterson said he and Skoe didn't seek publicity at the time, but rather wanted to ensure all could be put in place.

"Rod Skoe deserves a world of credit," Peterson said. "He really grabbed hold of this thing."