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Chronic wasting disease feared

February 24, 2002 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) by Doug Smith
South Dakota wildlife officials have reported their first confirmed case of chronic wasting disease in a wild deer.

The deer was shot by a hunter last fall in the southwest tip of the state.

"It certainly is not good news for us," said George Vandel, assistant wildlife director for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks. The agency plans to soon kill about 100 wild deer along the South Dakota-Nebraska border and test them for the disease to determine how prevalent it is there. Officials suspect the animal contracted the disease from Nebraska, where officials have been battling a chronic wasting disease outbreak.

The disease has been identified in wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska. It also has been found in captive herds in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Montana and Canada.

South Dakota officials collected the heads of 500 deer from hunters last fall and sent them to a Wyoming lab for testing. The lab only recently began testing the samples and confirmed one case. Officials aren't sure how many of the 500 deer samples have been tested.

Chronic wasting disease causes animals to grow thin and die. It is in the same family as mad cow disease, but it is not known to be transmissible to humans or other domestic livestock. The hunter who shot the diseased deer has been notified.

Ron Fowler, the department's wildlife program administrator, said Friday that officials will learn this week how many of the 500 deer had been tested by the lab. The state tested wild deer in 1997, 1998 and 1999 and didn't find any animals with the disease, Fowler said.

Fowler and Vandel are hopeful the confirmed case is isolated and that the disease won't spread. If it does, and hunters avoid those areas, the ramifications could be large.

"We depend on hunters to control the deer population," Fowler said. "If we can't do it with hunter harvest, then we're really in trouble."

One option may be to reduce deer density in some areas in hopes of reducing the chance of the disease spreading.

- Minnesota tested 55 wild deer last fall for chronic wasting disease, and all the animals tested negative. But the DNR still is concerned about the disease spreading here and is developing a plan to prevent that from happening.

Colorado killing deer

Colorado biologists and private hunters will kill more than 4,000 deer in three northern Colorado herds in hopes of containing chronic wasting disease.

The plan, approved last week by Colorado wildlife commissioners, calls for unprecedented reductions of the deer herd over the next two to five years. It was opposed by mountain homeowners, animal-rights activists and some wildlife professionals. Hunters, conservationists and board members supported the move.

A controversy

One of the biggest wildlife controversies this winter has been in North Dakota, where Gov. John Hoeven has proposed that the pheasant season be opened a week earlier than normal to aid commercial hunting operations.

The controversial proposal has been front-page news there.

Some resident hunters have been highly critical of the move, saying it was done without any public input. They don't like commercial hunting operations being aided at a time when more private land is being leased by fee-hunting operations.

In response, the North Dakota Game and Fish Advisory Board has scheduled a series of public meetings next month to gather input on the proposal and to discuss hunting access and nonresident hunter issues.

_ Doug Smith is at dsmith@startribune.com.

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