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Wild Animal Disease Spreads in Midwest

April 2, 2002 The New York Times by Michael Janofsky
New discoveries of diseased wildlife in Colorado, Nebraska and Wisconsin are raising fears throughout the middle of the country that a problem state officials once thought to be relatively isolated may be far more widespread.

In all three states, recent tests have produced positive results for chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disorder, in wild animals outside areas where the disease was already known to exist. While similar to mad cow disease, which is blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people in Europe, chronic wasting disease has so far not proved to be harmful to humans, although wildlife experts discourage people from eating affected animals. The disease attacks the animal's brain, causing the animal to become emaciated and lose bodily functions.

For more than two decades, scientists have found animals with wasting disease -- mule deer, white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer and elk -- only in certain parts of northeastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska as well as small areas of Montana, South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1997, the disease began appearing in elk raised on farms for food and antlers and for hunting preserves.

The latest test results indicate, however, that the disease is spreading, causing new concerns about how it moves and what its financial impact might be on rural communities that rely heavily on hunting for their economic stability.

Lynn Creekmore, CWD@aphis.usda.gov, a veterinarian with the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service of the United States Agriculture Department, said the discovery of new cases in Nebraska represented a spreading of the disease. But in Wisconsin and Colorado, Ms. Creekmore added, "we don't have a clear explanation of how it got there."

In all three states, officials are alarmed.

"We're in a crisis mode," said Sarah Shapiro-Hurley, a deputy administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Hunting is a big thing here. People come from all over the country to hunt deer in Wisconsin."

The visitors spend lots of money, especially the 600,000 hunters who descend on Wisconsin for the nine-day deer season in late November. Ms. Shapiro-Hurley says deer hunting has become a $2.6 billion industry in Wisconsin, where chronic wasting disease was unknown until an Iowa laboratory in February completed tests on samples collected over the previous few years.

The results stunned state officials, Ms. Shapiro-Hurley said, showing that 3 of the first 82 tests from animals southwest of Madison, the capital, were positive, making them the first animals with chronic wasting disease ever found east of the Mississippi River. Last week, two more tests proved positive, and more examinations are under way.

"Never in a million years did we expect to find a disease problem," Ms. Shapiro-Hurley said.

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens said last week that state officials for the first time found a diseased wild deer on the western side of the Continental Divide, near Craig, a discovery that stunned state officials and put at risk dozens of small towns that rely on the millions of dollars generated in the fall hunting season. Today, a second test proved positive.

In an interview, Mr. Owens said state officials always regarded the Rocky Mountains as "a natural barrier" to keep diseased wildlife within theeastern half of the state. That theory, he said, no longer works, but no one knows how the deer or the disease moved 100 miles west.

Further, he said, the discovery of diseased deer threatens an area of the state where hunting is common. Small towns, like Craig, depend on hunters to keep hotels, restaurants and ammunition shops open.

"All states in the Rocky Mountains depend upon tourism," Mr. Owens said, and wildlife is an important part of Colorado's economy and ecosystem.

In Nebraska, officials found an alarming number of diseased white-tail deer last month at a private hunting preserve in the northwest corner of the state. Bruce Morrison, assistant administrator for the Nebraska Department of Wildlife, said tests on 69 deer, more than half the 126 tested, showed evidence of the disease.

Tests continue, Mr. Morrison said, "and they will go on until we're satisfied we've got this stopped.

"That could take another year or two," he said.

Dr. Creekmore said that wasting disease in wild animals was first recognized by the federal Agriculture Department in 1981, and that since then, thousands of animals had been killed as part of the effort to test for the disease and prevent its spread.

In large measure, affected animals, living in the wild or inside preserves for hunting or farming, were known only in certain areas, and their percentages have remained relatively small. In Colorado and Wyoming, for example, less than 5 percent of wild deer and less than 1 percent of wild elk have been found to have the disease.

So far, the new discoveries have not only added substantial numbers to the overall total of affected animals but also raised concerns that state officials have not tracked the disease as closely as they might have thought.

The potential for problems is rising, especially in Wisconsin, where Ms. Shapiro-Hurley said deer and elk populations are denser than in Colorado and Wyoming.

"It's very alarming," she said. "But the results of our sampling may give us a better sense of whether we should be worrying about the entire southwest of Wisconsin or something bigger."

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