Imports, lax oversight paved way for chronic wasting disease

October 11, 2002 Saint Paul Pioneer Press by Dennis Lien
ST. PAUL, Minn. _ When a farmed elk from Aitkin County died in August of chronic wasting disease, many were surprised a disease once confined to a section of Colorado and Wyoming could hopscotch its way to Minnesota, threatening the state's wild deer population.

They shouldn't have been.

Minnesota has been on a collision course with the disease for years, a St. Paul Pioneer Press investigation has found.

Even as the fatal affliction decimated elk herds elsewhere, Minnesota's booming domestic deer and elk industry was importing thousands of animals from other states, including hundreds from areas now known to be infected. Coupled with evolving, and often lax, oversight from state regulators, it's hardly surprising the disease could turn up in Minnesota. Now, the industry, the state, and hundreds of thousands of Minnesota deer hunters are hoping it's not too late to keep the disease from spreading into the wild, as it has in Wisconsin.

They have reason to be concerned.

The newspaper reviewed records showing how thousands of elk and deer were brought to Minnesota over the past decade, exposing existing herds and the state's wild deer population to an increased risk of chronic wasting disease. Among the findings:

_Minnesota farmers and ranchers have trucked in more than 4,700 elk and deer from other states, almost 10 percent of them from areas now considered infected with chronic wasting disease.

_State regulators have sometimes been slow to respond to the threat. About 300 elk arrived here from contaminated areas of Colorado and Saskatchewan between 1996 and 2001 as the disease began to spread among ranches there, eventually prompting the slaughter of thousands of animals. Yet Minnesota did not ban elk imported from those areas until December 2001.

_Elk and deer farms in Minnesota are covered by a patchwork of rules, regulations and voluntary measures. Fewer than a third of the state's 700 elk ranches and game farms have joined a CWD monitoring program designed to sound an early alarm should the disease begin spreading here.

_Enforcement is uneven. Duties are split between the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health. Each admits it has neither the money nor the staffers to make sure that elk and deer farms are doing all they can to limit the disease risks.

To be sure, much about the origin of chronic wasting disease and how it is transmitted remains unknown. But many investigators are certain the mass buying, selling and transporting of domestic deer and elk among ranches in the 1990s played a role in spreading the disease, which can go undetected, and therefore be potentially infectious, for three years or more.

And in Minnesota and other states, elk and deer farm operators say they have been unfairly blamed for unwittingly helping to spread the disease.

Nationally, at least 500 animals from exposed or infected herds have been shipped to other states. In Colorado alone, where 10 elk herds have tested positive for the disease and been destroyed, 262 such animals were sent to 19 other states, including Minnesota.

"That's probably how it's been spread around the most, at least in the domestic elk-farm industry," said Richard Race, a senior investigator for the National Institutes of Health in Hamilton, Mont. "One guy bought (an animal) from somebody else and he didn't even know it was infected. And it may be the person who sold it didn't know it, either. So it certainly gets trucked around in that regard."

Minnesota's elk industry exploded during the 1990s.

The animal's velvet antlers are prized in the Far East, where they are believed to have powerful medicinal properties. Its lean red meat found a market among health-conscious consumers in the United States and elsewhere. Out-of-state shooting preserves, where clients might spend tens of thousands of dollars to bag a trophy bull, offered another lucrative outlet.

Today, there are almost 18,000 animals on Minnesota's elk and deer farms. The elk population, almost 12,000, has quietly become the nation's largest, representing nearly 10 percent of the estimated 135,000 elk raised in the United States.

With so much money at stake _ it's a $26-million-a-year business in Minnesota _ many breeders constantly try to improve the bloodlines of their herds by adding animals that possess the characteristics they hope to enhance. Often, that means buying, selling or swapping animals with other ranchers in Minnesota and elsewhere across the country.

All that movement poses serious logistical problems in the battle to control chronic wasting disease.

Once confined to a so-called "endemic zone" of Colorado and Wyoming, chronic wasting disease has spread to elk farms in seven states and two Canadian provinces. In just the past year, it has shown up for the first time in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

"The best way to spread a disease over a long distance is to take a sick animal that is still alive and transport that animal to an area where the disease doesn't exist and allow that animal to expose animals that have not been infected," said Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "It's basic mammal stuff. Animals don't migrate from Wyoming or Colorado to Minnesota on their own."

In Minnesota, they've had plenty of help, records show.

While the pace has slowed, from a peak of 746 in 1998 to 163 during the first eight months of this year, elk and deer have continued to arrive from areas at high risk for the disease, apparently without anyone's knowledge. Just two years ago, for example, 38 elk were brought to Minnesota from Fort Collins, Colo., where some scientists believe the disease first infected the wild deer population 35 years ago.

Other animals arrived from what later were determined to be infected areas in Saskatchewan, western Nebraska and Wisconsin and elsewhere in Colorado.

Mike Froseth of rural Sauk Centre was one of the Minnesota farmers who purchased elk from a herd in Saskatchewan in 1998. Two years later, he learned that herd was infected with chronic wasting disease.

Froseth said all of the animals he brought from Saskatchewan were euthanized and tested for the disease, but no trace of it was found. Another 80 animals in his herd are still under a quarantine that is set to expire next year.

Froseth said he had no idea any of the elk could potentially have the disease when he bought them from Canadian rancher Rick Alsager.

"He had one of the best herds around," Froseth said.

Minnesota officials insist that recently tightened regulations would now prevent animals in similar circumstances from being brought into the state.

"The program, as it stands today, wouldn't allow that to happen," said Dr. Paul Anderson, a veterinarian and an assistant director of the Board of Animal Health. "The program then did. That is how things evolve. If somebody called and wanted to bring them in now, we wouldn't let them.

"Certainly, we would never allow animals into Minnesota if we knew they were from an infected herd," Anderson said. "But the regulations, how many years they should be in a surveillance program, is a fairly recent thing."

Some say it's been too recent.

Until the disease jumped across the Midwest to Wisconsin this year, many states, including Minnesota, were slow to react to the potential threat, said Corey Glass of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Since then, he said, the state has done much better.

Minnesota didn't impose stricter import standards until December, when it banned elk from places where the disease is already known to be in the wild elk and deer population. It also enacted a CWD surveillance program that requires any animals from out of state to come from herds known to be disease-free for at least a year.

Those rules were further tightened in the spring, after infected wild deer were found in Wisconsin. The surveillance period was expanded to three years, deer were added to the import ban, and specific counties were identified in other states from which animals can no longer be imported.

Still, those measures are aimed mostly at stopping the transport of animals from places where the disease already is known to exist. Some states, including Wisconsin, have gone even further, effectively forbidding any deer or elk from out of state.

In Minnesota, where deer hunting is a $250-million-a-year industry and an important piece of the state's social and cultural fabric, the stakes are staggering should a widespread outbreak of chronic wasting disease occur in the wild.

Elk and deer farms are an essential piece of the state's strategy to prevent that from happening, because investigators believe the disease can be spread by infected animals that escape into the wild and pass it to other cervidae _ members of the deer family _ through saliva, urine or feces.

But in Minnesota, the agencies responsible for monitoring those operations say their ability to regulate the growing elk and deer farm industry is seriously flawed.

The Department of Natural Resources, which oversees nearly all of the state's deer farms and a small number of elk farms, admitted as much in March in a report that outlined nearly a dozen major shortcomings in its game farm program.

"The risk of CWD introduction into Minnesota active cervid herds and free-ranging populations may be increasing, due in part to antiquated and inadequate game farm regulations and oversight," the agency said in the report.

Among the concerns:

_Inadequate fencing regulations that fail to keep captive and wild animals apart and prevent escapes from farms.

The Board of Animal Health, for example, requires 8-foot-high fences, which can still be jumped by deer and elk. But the DNR leaves it to farmers to do what they consider appropriate to keep their animals from escaping.

_Farmers are not required to report when elk or deer do escape.

Sightings of exotic deer, essentially escapees from game farms, are on the rise, with at least eight known instances in 2001, compared with one or two in previous years. Those deer were seen in Crow Wing, Douglas, Meeker, Otter Tail and Aitkin counties.

_Spotty enforcement and inspections, in part because of budget cuts within the agency.

_Shoddy record-keeping, limiting the agency's ability to keep track of animals and monitor them from farm to farm. Nearly half the game farms registered with the DNR failed to file sales receipts and other reports required by the agency.

"We weren't doing a very good job," conceded Wayne Edgerton, the DNR's agricultural policy director. "Farmers were saying they didn't realize they had to do this. Well, gee, you have a license, you should understand."

Edgerton said some of those problems have since been corrected. Others will have to wait until the Legislature convenes again next year.

One solution would be to consolidate all responsibility for deer and elk farms under the state Board of Animal Health, which oversees most of the captive elk and a smaller number of deer. Farmers now have the option of registering their herds with either agency, and the board is considered to run the tighter program.

The board also operates the state's voluntary testing program, which checks animals older than 16 months for the disease when they are slaughtered or die. While the number of farms agreeing to take part has gradually increased, a third of the elk farms and virtually all the deer farms are not participating in the program.

Many want the testing program to be mandatory. But that takes money that the state so far has not been willing to ante up.

"We're not opposed to that happening. But, again, it's a resource issue," said the board's Anderson, adding such an effort would cost more than $1 million a year.

"To go from a voluntary to a mandatory program, and to take on all the people who have farmed deer or elk in Minnesota, that would take a tremendous amount of resources."

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