Methods to battle CWD considered

April 14, 2002 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)  by Doug Smith
Minnesota officials are considering several options to try to prevent chronic wasting disease from showing up in the state's wild or captive deer and elk herds.

An advisory committee to the state Board of Animal Health recommended last week that the board further restrict the importation of captive deer and elk into the state.

The committee rejected a suggestion to impose a one-year moratorium on the importation of all deer and elk _ an idea that has the support of the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Instead the committee recommended that animals could be imported from states that don't have chronic wasting disease (CWD) only if they have been in a CWD surveillance program for at least one year. "That effectively would prevent most deer from being brought into the state because very few white-tailed deer herds have been monitored that long," said Dr. Kris Petrini of the Board of Animal Health. However, it wouldn't prevent the importation of elk, because many elk herds nationwide have have been monitored for several years.

The committee recommended that deer and elk could be imported from states where CWD has been found only if they came from herds that have been under a surveillance program for at least three years. Scientists believe the maximum incubation time for the disease is two to three years, meaning that animals that show no signs of it after three years should be disease-free.

Committee members said they feared a simple moratorium on all imports would discourage rather than encourage surveillance programs, and the goal is to find any diseased animals and kill them.

The board currently prohibits the importation of any deer and elk from areas where the disease has been found, or from any herd that was infected or exposed to CWD. Also, all imported elk must be from herds that have been under surveillance for at least one year.

Under another recommendation, owners of captive deer and elk herds registered with the board would be required to monitor their animals for CWD. About 160 herds _ mostly elk _ are being voluntarily monitored. There are about 650 deer and elk herds in the state.

"Even if we required mandatory monitoring tomorrow, it would take time to implement it," said Petrini. "It couldn't be done overnight."

The Board of Animal Health meets this week and could approve the recommendations, or the Legislature could take similar actions before it adjourns.

The measures underscore the heightened sense of concern in Minnesota since the discovery of chronic wasting disease in wild white-tailed deer in neighboring Wisconsin and South Dakota. The disease, which has not been found in Minnesota, is fatal to deer and elk. Officials emphasized that there is no evidence the disease can spread to humans.

The DNR is developing a contingency plan in the event the disease is found here, and the agency plans to test hundreds of deer shot by hunters this fall to determine if it already is present. Last fall the agency tested about 50 deer, and none had the disease. More than 500 captive elk in Minnesota that died or were killed since 1998 have been tested for CWD, and none had it.

The stakes are large, both for the owners of the 29,000 captive deer and elk in the state, and for the estimated 1 million wild deer and 600,000 deer hunters. Both are multi-million dollar industries.

"We think erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do," said Wayne Edgerton, DNR agricultural policy director.

"We're all in this together," Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, told a crowd of about 50 people, many captive deer and elk owners, who attended last week's Board of Animal Health's committee meeting.

Johnson recently sent a letter to Gov. Jesse Ventura urging additional testing of wild deer, the halting all recreational deer feeding and suggesting mandatory monitoring of all deer and elk farms, double-fencing those farms and calling for a moratorium on importation of any deer and elk into the state.

A major issue that needs to be resolved, officials said, is that Minnesota's deer and elk farms currently are licensed under two separate and very different laws, one administered by the Board of Animal Health and one administered by the DNR.

For example, one requires farm owners to report any escaped animals, one doesn't. One requires an 8-foot fence, the other doesn't specify size. Having two sets of rules complicates the monitoring of the herds for disease and the possible prevention of it, officials said.

Last week's recommendation to make CWD monitoring mandatory applies only to the 250 herds registered with the Board of Animal Health, not to the 400 licensed by the DNR.

The DNR and Board of Animal Health are working on a proposal to consolidate the regulations and give the authority over the captive herds to one of the two entities. But officials say that will require legislation that will be offered in the 2003 session.

Another concern expressed last week: should the carcasses of deer and elk killed by Minnesota hunters in other states _ including states where CWD have been found _ be allowed to be brought back into Minnesota? The concern is that a diseased animal could spread the disease here.

For now, the DNR will try to educate hunters about the potential problem, but it's possible restrictions could be imposed later, officials said.

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