Elk, deer observed for signs of disease;
Fatal ailment has no known remedy

October 29, 2001 Kansas City Star by Bill Graham
The region's wildlife and livestock authorities are increasing their surveillance this fall for chronic wasting disease, a fatal ailment for elk and deer that is similar to mad cow disease.

Missouri and Kansas agriculture officials are tracing elk shipped in from herds in Colorado, where the disease was recently diagnosed. Colorado officials are destroying 1,500 domestic elk exposed to the disease.

Wildlife officials will test some deer killed by hunters this fall to check for chronic wasting disease. "It's a scary deal," said Lonnie Hansen, a wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "I just hope we don't have it and we don't get it."

Chronic wasting is a protein degeneration disease in the brain that causes disorientation, which leads to starvation and death. The disease has never been known to be transmitted to cattle or humans.

But authorities are cautious because variations of mad cow disease have killed people and harmed the beef industry in Europe by reducing consumer confidence in meat.

Missouri and Kansas combined have 1.4 million wild deer that support an estimated $1 billion deer-hunting industry. Disease could harm herds and business.

Biologists say chances are remote that a case will be found.

But a U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency order in September said the disease was on the rise among wild and domestic herds. The order released $2.6 million to pay farmers for destroyed animals and monitoring programs.

"Aggressive action in controlling this disease now will decrease the chance of having to deal with a much larger, widespread and costly problem later, such as the situation with BSE (mad cow disease) in Europe," said the order signed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

Chronic wasting disease is part of a group known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Biologists have found chronic wasting in wild deer or elk in limited areas of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

But the disease also has been found in domestic elk herds in Canada and 14 states, including Nebraska and Oklahoma.

There is no cure or vaccine for the disease, and scientists are unsure how it is transmitted.

"This is a whole unique thing to our disease process," said Lloyd Fox, a biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Chronic wasting among wild animals is only in western areas where populations are low, Hansen said, "but if it gets to the Midwest, we don't know how it will move in areas with high-density deer populations."

A chronic wasting outbreak in Missouri or Kansas probably would be controlled by drastically reducing the deer population in the area where it was found, officials said.

Domestic elk are already being watched.

Six commercial elk in Kansas are under quarantine because they came from herds in Colorado where the disease was recently found, said George Teagarden, Kansas livestock commissioner. Four other elk in Kansas that came from the same herds have been destroyed. They tested negative for the disease.

The only sure method of detection is to examine the brain tissue of dead animals. Disease control involves quarantining or killing exposed animals.

Missouri is investigating 46 elk from the Colorado herds that passed through two sale barns. But those animals were sold to out-of-state buyers, and those traced do not appear to have the disease, said David Hopson, acting state veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Domestic elk ranchers are working with state and federal agencies on a detailed record-keeping program for herds to help eliminate disease exposure and to help those with healthy herds market their animals. Missouri began a voluntary program this fall, and Kansas plans to begin one next year.

"We see this as something totally under control," said Henry Kriegel, a spokesman for the North American Elk Breeders Association, based in Platte City.

Chris Higgins, who raises elk near Trimble, Mo., said that breeders go to great lengths to prevent problems and that a serious outbreak of chronic wasting disease probably will be prevented. Higgins said disease has always been a problem for agriculture.

"This is not something to panic over," he said. "But it is something to look at and be concerned about."

To reach Bill Graham, natural sciences reporter, call (816) 234-5906 or send e-mail to bgraham@kcstar.com. On the lookout

The Missouri Department of Conservation, watching for cases of chronic wasting disease, has asked the public to report deer that appear disoriented or in poor health. The Kansas City office can be reached at (816) 356-2280.

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologists can be reached at (913) 894-9113, Ext. 16.

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