Neb. officials plan deer slaughter to look for illness

January 7, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
A chronic-wasting disease outbreak in captive elk and white-tailed deer at a northwest Nebraska hunting ranch has touched off a 'code-red' wildlife emergency, and officials will shoot 100 deer outside the fences to see whether the disease has infected free-ranging herds.

Twelve of the 25 white-tailed deer and five elk killed this fall by clients on the Harrison, Neb., shooting ranch have tested positive for the fatal brain-wasting malady.

'This is probably one of the highest priorities we've had in the history of the agency,' said Kirk Nelson, assistant director for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. 'We consider this as code red as it can get for wildlife management.' Nebraska officials are at a loss to explain how the initial case arrived at the ranch. An analysis of the elk herd yielded no trace-backs to known infected facilities, according to state veterinarian Larry Williams.

The explosive movement of the disease through the penned herds has prompted the commission to reconsider its support for fenced hunting preserves, a wildlife official said.

'Hindsight is always 20/20, and in retrospect, I think most constituents we represent are not in favor of shooter-bull facilities,' said Nelson. 'We are very concerned about the proliferation of shooter-bull operations and whether the concentration of animals in less than desirable settings is ethical and healthy.'

Nelson added that the agency is being pressured by hunting groups to move against shooting ranches. 'Our constituents have told us if we don't take appropriate action, they might be looking at a referendum.'

The furor erupted in December after officials revealed the infection had ripped through the herd of whitetails trapped inside the ranch when owner Richard Edwards fenced the property in 1991. Capturing whitetails behind fences became illegal in 1992, though Nebraskans can still legally pen wild mule deer.

Whitetails are more social than mule deer, and the heavy infection rate has made officials extremely concerned the disease may have had enough time to jump the fence to free-ranging deer.

Brain samples from five shooter bulls killed this fall also tested positive for the disease. Last year, two bulls were gored to death inside the pens. Both also tested positive for CWD.

It's possible an infected elk brought the disease to Edwards' ranch, Nelson said, but the other possibility is that it migrated naturally from free-ranging deer herds in Wyoming or southwestern Nebraska without being noticed until now. Infection rates of 4 percent have been documented in a wild-deer herd less than 50 miles away, he said. 'It's a real epidemiological puzzle.'

The degenerative disorder attacks the brains of deer and elk, causing unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

This week, Nebraska wildlife officials will begin shooting wild whitetails outside the hunting park's fence to see if they have contracted the disease, Nelson said. They also want to kill all the deer inside the fence.

'If we don't find any cases in the free-ranging deer, that may be enough,' he added. 'If we do find it, we may have to consider further herd reductions.'

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