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Elk illness nets federal funds:
Experts fear CWD may spread

September 28, 2001 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Elk breeders will get a $ 2.6 million boost for their efforts to contain chronic wasting disease through a monitoring and reimbursement program announced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Colorado Department of Agriculture officials are unsure how much money would be available to help reimburse three state ranchers whose herds were quarantined by state veterinarians two weeks ago because of the fatal brain wasting malady.

The program, run by the USDA's Animal Health and Inspection Service, will buy herds that have been exposed to CWD, increase monitoring and testing for the disease, and provide training for producers and veterinarians. Last week, state officials said they would postpone a decision on whether to destroy all 850 elk in the three herds until they learned more about the proposed federal support.

Symptoms of chronic wasting disease were first recognized in wild mule deer and elk in adjacent parts of Colorado and Wyoming in the late 1960s, though it wasn't diagnosed until 10 years later. The degenerative disorder attacks the brains of deer and elk, causing unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

Although researchers don't know how the disease is transmitted, they do know the infectious agent persists in the environment and can sicken deer or elk that move onto contaminated ground.

The first case of CWD in captive elk was discovered in a Canadian herd in 1996, and the industry mobilized a containment effort similar to a program that controlled an outbreak of tuberculosis in the 1990s.

In the last five years, CWD has been identified in captive herds in South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado.

On Wednesday, the New Mexico Game & Fish Department said it would destroy a herd of 14 elk in the southwest part of the state because the owner had bought three elk from a Stoneham, Colo., ranch recently placed under quarantine.

Elk ranchers have complained that the Colorado Division of Wildlife has done too little to contain the spread of the disease in wild herds it manages. The endemic area has spread slowly into southwestern Nebraska, and many biologists are worried that if it is unchecked, the disease will move down the Platte River through whitetail herds.

Wildlife officials say they are formulating new management plans for the endemic area to significantly decrease deer numbers in an attempt to limit the chain of infection.

There are no documented cases of CWD infecting humans. About 100 Europeans have died from eating British beef infected with mad cow disease, a related disorder. But a collaborative study done in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado suggests there may be a molecular barrier that limits susceptibility of humans, cattle and sheep to CWD.


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