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Chronic wasting disease moving east; Vet calls for testing of wild elk, deer

March 4, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Every state that has had game farms during the last 10 years should immediately check for chronic wasting disease in wild and captive herds of deer and elk, a Colorado wildlife veterinarian said Friday.

The warning came days after startled Wisconsin officials disclosed that three white-tailed bucks killed in an agricultural region near Madison last fall tested positive for the fatal deer and elk disease.

It's the first time the relative of mad cow disease has been identified east of the Mississippi River. Its arrival in Wisconsin places 20 million white-tailed deer in the eastern United States and Canada at risk. Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, eats away at the brains of bovine victims. It reached epidemic levels in British cattle during the mid-1990s.

'The irony is we'd started looking for (chronic wasting disease) a couple of years ago just to be safe,' said Julie Langenberg, a wildlife veterinarian with Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. 'And now we've found it. Who knows what else is going on in the Midwest?'

'That's what I worry about,' said Colorado Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller, one of the nation's foremost CWD researchers. 'There aren't a lot of states that are actually looking for it.'

Officials are unsure how CWD arrived in Wisconsin, which is 900 miles farther east than the disease had been seen before. But U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesmen said the agency will investigate the dozens of deer and elk farms near the game unit where the deer were shot, even though none has reported a case of CWD.

'Somehow it was human-assisted,' said Langenberg.

Wisconsin's voluntary CWD surveillance program wasn't started until 1997, and 44 of the state's elk farms have registered with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Just one of the state's 500 deer farms, which are regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, is participating in the program.

'I think the agency will now come out strongly in favor of mandatory programs,' Langenberg said.

National standards proposed by the USDA would require elk herds to be monitored for five years before they could be declared free of CWD.

Not much is known about how CWD moves through herds of white-tailed deer. But a recently discovered outbreak in northwest Nebraska has given researchers pause: 24 of 62 deer killed inside a 1,500-acre Sioux County shooting ranch - 39 percent - tested positive.

The implications of the disease running through the East's incredibly dense white-tail herds - in some cases hundreds of animals per square mile - make officials shudder.

'We're going to have to do some hard thinking about what this means,' said Langenberg. 'Unfortunately, this is the first time it's happened with whitetails. So we're going to have to learn as we go.'

One thing is certain: Three decades after it was first identified as a killer of deer and elk, chronic wasting disease has broken out of its 15,000-square-mile stronghold on the borderlands of Colorado and Wyoming.

Two weeks ago, South Dakota officials acknowledged their first case of CWD in a wild whitetails near a previously infected game farm south of the Black Hills. In Nebraska, biologists shot more than a hundred deer in the last two months near an infected ranch to find the extent of an outbreak. A thousand miles to the north, Canadian biologists found infected deer in a region where 38 elk farms were devastated by an outbreak of the disease between 1997 and 2000.

Even though CWD's relative, mad cow disease, has killed more than 100 Europeans who ate tainted British beef, there is no evidence that the deer disease can infect humans. But a 2001 study by a Montana lab suggests that scrapie, another related disease, can infect new species without causing symptoms for two or more generations.

Researchers say it's too early to conclude that the Nebraska and South Dakota outbreaks were caused by game farms.

But elk breeders say that mismanagement of wild herds is the real problem.

'Wildlife officials have known that the disease existed in the wild, and they have made virtually no efforts to eliminate the disease or even stop its spread,' said Lisa Villella, executive director for the North American Elk Breeders Association, echoing a frequent complaint of Colorado elk ranchers.

Last month, the Colorado Division of Wildlife finalized plans to shoot more than 4,500 deer in three game units near Fort Collins to see if reducing deer populations can slow the spread of the disease.

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