Where are experts on CWD panel?

June 9, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) Editorial
What's wrong with this picture: Of the 10-member task force that advises the governor on what to do about the chronic wasting disease afflicting this state's deer and elk, there is a representative from the tourism industry, another from ranching and a third aligned with hunters.

There is someone to speak up for Western Slope interests and someone else who will defend the stake of county governments.

There's a member of an old-line conservation group and no fewer than four members of state agencies dealing with wildlife and agriculture.

And that's it. Now remember, this is the task force charged with recommending how the state responds to an infection that is a member of the family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, which include such always fatal ailments as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in cattle. Remember, in addition, that mad cow has leaped the species barrier and killed people.

Finally, consider that CWD in deer and elk appears far more infectious than mad cow disease because it is transmitted in nature. Deer don't have to eat the ground up parts of other infected animals, as cattle do.

Should CWD cross the species barrier to humans, or even to cattle, we'd all better hold our breath.

Wouldn't you think the governor would want someone on the task force with some medical credentials - that is, other than a lone veterinarian, who actually represents hunting interests?

Wouldn't he want a scientist or two or three? How about an epidemiologist and an expert in prions, the abnormally shaped proteins thought to cause all of these frightening TSEs? For that matter, why isn't the Department of Public Health and Environment sitting as a voting member at the table, given its leading role in combating disease? It was given a non-voting spot only as an afterthought, weeks after the panel was named.

Yes, we know: There is no documented case of a human getting sick from eating infected deer or elk, and it may be that this cannot occur. Then again, British officials were once confident that mad cow disease posed no threat whatever to humans.

Let's be clear. The spread of CWD from a confined area of northwest Colorado and Wyoming to other states and Canadian provinces, as well as to the Western Slope and - as confirmed just last week - to Jefferson County is ominous only in part because of its potential impact on wildlife, elk farms and local economies dependent on hunting and tourism. Those of course are serious, alarming concerns, but two others are even scarier. If CWD were to jump to cattle, it would be devastating to Colorado. And the fallout would be even worse, of course, if the disease crossed over to humans.

The governor's task force doesn't include a single voting member whose institutional and professional interests are focused solely on the protection of human health. Instead, it is dominated - almost monopolized - by people whose interests could even conflict with prudent management of CWD. All of these interests must be at the table, but we have no doubt which one deserves the biggest voice. It's the one that is missing.

That voice is missing not only on the task force. It's also underplayed in the bureaucratic structure managing the CWD outbreak. As detailed in the Rocky Mountain News' special report, "Killer in the Herds," the Colorado Division of Wildlife is in charge of addressing the disease in the wild and the Department of Agriculture regulates the state's 129 elk ranches.

This fractured oversight might have made some sense in 1994 when the legislature created it, but it's a liability now. One agency should be charged with combating CWD in wild and domestic deer and elk alike because the effort to contain the disease must address both populations at the same time. The logical choice? We're tempted to say the Department of Public Health and Environment, because conflicting interests muddy the focus of both the Ag Department and Division of Wildlife. Ag officials historically have promoted the expansion of elk ranching - a dubious notion today - while wildlife officials depend on hunters for their budget.

If one of those agencies must be in charge, however, the obvious choice is the Division of Wildlife since the importance of the state's wild elk and deer utterly dwarfs that of elk ranches. Ever since CWD was detected on the Western Slope, Gov. Bill Owens has been an outspoken proponent of taking it as an extremely serious threat. If he means it, he'll make sure the bureaucracy and his own task force are up to the task.

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