Minnesota officials on high alert for deer disease
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Minnesota officials on high alert for deer disease

March 17, 2002 The Associated Press
A fatal brain disease that affects deer and elk has been inching ever closer to Minnesota, causing officials to develop plans to stop it.

The recent discovery of chronic wasting disease in South Dakota and Wisconsin has put Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials on high alert.

"Watching this develop has been like a prairie fire," said Tim Bremicker, DNR's wildlife director. "There isn't a day that we don't deal with it." Though South Dakota found the disease in just one deer killed last fall and Wisconsin found just three in its 2001 hunt, those cases renewed concern about the spread of the little-understood disease.

Wisconsin officials this week began an effort to kill 500 more deer in the affected area in Dane and Iowa counties and test those animals for the disease.

Minnesota officials are hustling to develop a contingency plan if cases are found here, and they're making plans to do more testing this fall for the disease.

"Clearly, what's occurred in South Dakota and Wisconsin has had a definite influence on us in regard to the urgency of the issue," Bremicker said.

Minnesota hasn't tested as many deer as have states where the disease has been found. Nobody knows yet whether Minnesota is free of the disease or whether it simply hasn't been found here yet.

The disease, first discovered in 1967 in Colorado, has now been identified in eight states and one Canadian province. A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, it is similar to so-called mad cow disease and to a 250-year-old disease in sheep called scrapie.

State and federal agencies are taking action to control the spread of the disease. For example, Colorado plans to reduce a wild herd of deer from 25,000 to 20,000 over the next three years in an area where chronic wasting disease is prevalent. In Saskatchewan, 7,500 elk on farms where animals have tested positive for the disease have been destroyed since 2000.

Although the South Dakota deer found to have chronic wasting disease was near other known endemic areas in Nebraska and Wyoming, the Wisconsin finding came as more of a surprise to biologists and researchers.

"I was really disappointed to hear about the findings in Wisconsin," said Beth Williams, a veterinarian with the University of Wyoming and a leading authority on chronic wasting disease. "That's a large geographic movement and into a very dense population of whitetails. I'm afraid that might be quite a problem."

Because disease spreads more easily when animals are concentrated, there is concern that the disease might spread more rapidly among wild deer herds here.

So far, there is no evidence that chronic wasting disease can be transmitted naturally to livestock such as cattle, nor is there evidence that it is transmissible to humans [There is evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator]. Still, most wildlife agencies in the affected states offer hunters a checklist of advice about handling and eating big game.

After last fall's deer hunt, Minnesota officials tested 51 deer for chronic wasting disease. None had the disease.

Because there is concern about chronic wasting disease spreading through the movement of farmed deer and elk, Minnesota's Board of Animal Health last week began prohibiting the import of farmed elk and deer from the affected areas in Wisconsin. An import ban already had been in place on such animals from other areas where the disease had been found on farms or in the wild, said Kris Petrini, the board's assistant director.

There are 237 elk and/or deer farms in Minnesota. Since 1999, the state has had a voluntary chronic wasting disease monitoring program for the industry, and 155 farms participate.

A federal plan is now being written by the Agriculture Department that will prohibit interstate movement unless they're under a proposed federal surveillance program.

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