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Disease threatens deer, elk

May 17, 2002 The Plain Dealer by D'Arcy Egan
A brain-eating disease in elk and deer has hop-scotched the Mississippi River, forcing Wisconsin officials to kill as many as 15,000 white-tailed deer over the next few weeks and putting the Ohio Division of Wildlife (ODOW) on full alert for chronic wasting disease.

Similar to mad cow disease in Europe, the origin of CWD is still a mystery. Unlike mad cow disease, no humans have ever contracted CWD.

The disease has festered for decades among elk and deer in northeastern Colorado. The disease is most prevalent in captive elk herds. Colorado's CWD control program slaughtered 1,500 elk this winter after 32 elk in captive herds tested positive.

Now the disease has escaped, with dire consequences for the high-density white-tailed deer populations in Ohio and around the Midwest.

Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) officials will test 500 white-tailed deer killed by hunters this fall, said David Glouer, Ohio State veterinarian. Unlike Wisconsin and Texas, Ohio will not slam the door on the importation of deer and elk.

In fact, Ohio has no idea how many elk are living behind fences in the state. It is believed that diseased elk shipped from Colorado are responsible for the general spread of CWD.

"We don't have a listing of deer or elk ranches," Glouer said. "We do request a certificate that the animal has been inspected by a veterinarian before it can be brought into Ohio, but it is a voluntary program."

State wildlife officials require people raising white-tailed deer to have a special permit, but not for elk or mule deer. Those animals are considered exotic and are under the jurisdiction of the ODA and in the same classification as cattle or sheep.

Wisconsin officials are not taking chances, creating a 290 square-mile death zone in the Mount Horeb area, just west of Madison, where 14 deer have tested positive, including three checked by hunters last fall. It was the first time animals east of the Mississippi River had tested positive for CWD.

Critics of the massive deer kill in Wisconsin are becoming vocal. For the most part, Wisconsin officials are ignoring them as they ask for $22.5 million in state and federal funds to fight the disease.

The brain disease is the "most serious animal health crisis in our history," Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum told the Wisconsin Conservation Congress last week, according to the Associated Press. "[CWD] is similar to a lifeboat heading for a life-threatening waterfall on a slow-moving stream."

If wildlife officials, farmers, landowners and sharpshooters can kill every white-tailed deer in the target area, it still might not contain the disease. No state agency has been able to control a CWD outbreak in wild deer or elk yet.

"Wisconsin is not overreacting," said ODOW Deputy Chief Steve Gray. "We would do the same in Ohio. Our deer herd is so valuable to hunters and nonhunters alike. Deer hunting is a $500 million industry in Ohio, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

CWD attacks the brains of infected deer and elk, literally causing the brain to rot. Symptoms include excessive salivation, trouble swallowing, a difficulty judging distance, lack of coordination and drooping ears.

There is no way to test live animals for the disease. Elk and deer must be killed and the brain inspected to determine if the animal has CWD.

CWD belongs to a group of related diseases call Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE). Included on the TSE list is mad cow disease, which has resulted in about 100 human deaths in Europe.

"CWD is not the same as BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy], which causes mad cow disease," Glouer said. "Most importantly, there is no evidence that CWD can infect humans."

Nevertheless, hunters from Colorado to Ohio have been warned not to harvest deer that appear to be sick. Animals that appear to be diseased should not be consumed. Hunters should wear protective gloves when field-dressing deer or elk and should not eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen or lymph nodes.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Darrell Bazzell could not guarantee hunters their venison was safe to eat.

"Clearly, hunters have to make some tough choices this fall," Bazzell told the Associated Press. "We cannot guarantee 100 percent a clean bill of health."

The infected area is in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, a stone's throw from the Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota borders. The deer densities in the area are much higher than in western states, increasing the risk of CWD spreading through the free-ranging herd.

The white-tailed deer most at risk in Ohio would be those in the urban areas where hunting is not allowed and deer densities are highest. Urban counties in Ohio and around the Midwest can have as many as 80 to 100 deer per square mile.

"Disease is less likely to spread if deer densities are low," said Dave Swanson, leader of the ODOW Forest Wildlife Research Station in New Marshfield, Ohio. "High concentration is a problem and compounded by people feeding deer. The animals are nose to nose, with sick animals spreading the disease. It is like having 30 people in a room. If one has a cold, all risk getting it."

Elk farmers have destroyed hundreds of animals and cleaned and even removed the soil from the infected pens, Swanson said. When deer and elk are again placed in the pens, CWD comes back.

"That may signal the end of deer or elk ranching in some states," Swanson said.

The big mystery is how CWD jumped from the infected area of northeastern Colorado, southern Wyoming and southwestern Nebraska. In recent months the disease has not only headed eastward, but westward, as well. The Continental Divide was to be a natural barrier that prevented CWD from heading westward.

That barrier has now been breached. Five of 329 wild mule deer killed in western Colorado tested positive for CWD in April in an area south of Craig, Colo.

Colorado wildlife officials and landowners worry that declaring northwest Colorado an "endemic area" for CWD, or requiring mandatory testing of animals killed by hunters, could have a major economic impact in an area noted for its big-game hunting.

Local outfitters and landowners who cash in on the business of sport hunting would be devastated if hunters are scared away by the specter of CWD in mule deer and elk.

Contact D'Arcy Egan at:

degan@plaind.com, 216-999-6136

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