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Illness spawns deadly quest
Neb. biologists' mission is to kill 100 deer, stop chronic wasting disease

February 2, 2002 Rocky Mountain News by Todd Hartman
CRAWFORD, Neb. -- Camouflaged biologists, rifles on their shoulders, trudge through snow, dreading their assignment even more than the stabbing cold.

On a quest to stamp out chronic wasting disease, they're on a somber mission to kill 100 white-tailed deer in an infected zone of the Pine Ridge, a rugged, ponderosa pine-covered upland contrasting sharply with the state's cornfield flats.

This is the frontier for an emerging, deadly illness pushing out from its epicenter in northeastern Colorado. Here, the disease has taken hold among wild deer at a rate alarming to Nebraska's Game and Parks Commission -- and officials are wasting no time trying to contain it. They fear it could spread across the Cornhusker State, where deer populations grow thicker moving eastward.

"This is huge . . . a wildlife emergency," said Todd Nordeen, one of several state biologists participating in the recent hunt.

Employing hunting techniques normally illegal, the biologists-turned-snipers shine spotlights on hillsides at nightfall, hoping to freeze the deer long enough to shoot them. They take aim from their pick-up trucks. They leave bait in open fields. And they do much of it the hard way -- long treks into the trees and long waits lying in snow.

"We are trying to be as aggressive as we can be, do whatever can be done to combat the disease," said Bruce Morrison, who oversees the CWD battle for Nebraska. "In our opinion, the health of the wild deer and elk herd in the whole state are at risk."

Test results are still pouring in -- both from deer killed by state workers as well as others turned in voluntarily by hunters. So far, it's known 10 wild deer in Nebraska's panhandle were carrying the disease out of nearly 1,400 tested since 1997. Another 400 samples await testing.

Though 10 infections may seem minor, Nebraska game officials and hunters say otherwise. Indeed, the sense of urgency has grown daily in the past two weeks, when workers received news of eight of the positive tests. Prior to that, they only knew of two cases.

What's unfolding in Nebraska mimics earlier concerns in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, where the presence of chronic wasting disease dates to at least the early and mid-1980s, and officials are still worried about its spread.

Nebraska officials took their latest step this week, when they expanded a voluntary testing program from the panhandle to the entire state, meaning hunters across Nebraska can submit deer for CWD testing. Officials may impose mandatory testing of any deer killed in three western counties, two of which border northeastern Colorado.

Chronic wasting disease kills by creating tiny holes in the brain of deer and elk. Scientists believe it is related to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. There's no proof people can contract the version affecting deer and elk.

The disease first turned up in Nebraska in 1997, when an infected animal was found in a captive herd. That's when the state started asking hunters to get their wild bounties tested. Since then, two more captive herds have shown infection. And last year, state biologists joined the effort to cull wild elk and deer.

One of the captive herds might be key to the disease's spread in northwestern Nebraska. There, inside a privately owned, 600-acre enclosure of deer and elk, 37 of the animals have turned up positive for the disease so far -- triggering some officials to believe the disease likely spread outward from there.

Still, it's also possible the disease came from the wild and spread to the penned animals.

Whatever its source, the movement of the disease is of grave concern not only to hunters and game managers, but to ranchers and other landowners who make money by leasing out hunting privileges to visitors. The news of CWD is scaring people away.

"'I had one landowner tell me he had four hunters from Iowa who had hunted on his land every year for five years. Now, they've canceled out," Morrison said.

Tuesday morning, Nebraska biologists stopped along an empty country road, the bed of their pick-up truck stacked with five just-killed deer. A local rancher happened along, took a look at the load, and shook his head sadly.

The disease "really concerns me -- it's a bad deal," said the rancher, Mark Serres. Despite no evidence people can contract the illness, Serres said he'll no longer hunt and eat deer on his land. "I'd sure be a little bit leery about it," he said.

Serres worries, too, that the disease could infect cattle, though there's no evidence the disease can jump between the species. If so, "that would wreck the country," he said.

In coming weeks, state biologists -- fearing the disease is increasing its radius in northwestern Nebraska -- might expand their culling efforts.

It's distasteful work, the wildlife workers say, but conducted for the greater good of reining in an enemy that remains a frightening mystery. Questions about how the disease spreads and whether it can nest in soil, or silent carriers, remain unanswered.

"As biologists and conservationists, we don't enjoy this," said Nordeen, one of about a dozen workers who hunted the white-tailed deer last week. "Hopefully, it's for the benefit of the species in the long run."

Contact Todd Hartman at (303) 892-5048 or hartmant@RockyMountainNews.com.

February 2, 2002

http://rockymountainnews.com/drmn/state/article/0,1299,DRMN_21_968006,00.html


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