State officials negotiate with landowner over chronic wasting disease

January 7, 2002 The Associated Press
Hoping to contain an outbreak of chronic wasting disease in two captive herds of deer and elk, state wildlife officials want to pay the landowner so they can kill and test the animals.

The deal would cost about $150,000 over five years.

Federal research funds might help cover the costs. Wildlife biologists want to prevent the disease from spreading and research how it is transmitted. Chronic wasting disease is fatal to deer and elk, but no threat has been detected to humans or livestock.

If the disease spreads and hunters perceive deer as unsafe to eat, the state could lose millions of dollars in hunting license sales and hunting-related activity.

Until the outbreak on land in northwest Nebraska owned by Richard Edwards of rural Harrison, wasting disease had been detected in two wild mule deer and seven domesticated elk in Nebraska.

Edwards, who runs a game reserve, said 21 deer killed by paying clients have been tested for wasting disease. Of those, 12 were infected. In addition, seven elk in a separate fenced enclosure on Edwards' land have tested positive since 2000.

It is legal to enclose elk in Nebraska, but it is illegal to enclose white-tail deer. Edwards said last month that he put up his fence in 1991 when it was legal to do so and his property was grandfathered in when the law changed a year later.

Edwards said the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission knew about his operation for 11 years but never said anything about it until now.

Ted Blume, law enforcement administrator with the commission, said Edwards has cooperated with government officials and will not be charged.

Now, the commission hopes to lease 1,700 acres from Edwards for five years to kill the diseased animals.

"This is an emergency disease action," said Kirk Nelson, assistant director of the commission and leader of the fish and wildlife divisions. "We feel we have enough of a justification for what we're doing."

The tentative agreement would pay Edwards $5 an acre per year to lease his property for five years, Nelson said. The agency also would pay Edwards to maintain the property and help kill wild deer confined inside a 10-foot fence surrounding 600 acres of land.

The agreement would need approval from commissioners and perhaps the state attorney general, Nelson said.

The president of a hunting and fishing association said the commission needs to act quickly, even if it means using money gathered from fees charged for hunting and fishing licenses.

"That $150,000 is peanuts compared to what could be lost," said Gloria Erickson of Holdrege, president of the Nebraska Council of Sportsmen's Clubs.

Edwards also could receive $3,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each of the roughly 80 elk in his herd. The USDA pays for domestic elk that must be destroyed because of wasting disease.

Commission staff were to begin shooting deer near Edwards' property on Monday. They want to collect 100 deer brains to test whether it has spread into the state's wild deer population.

Edwards could not be reached for comment during the weekend.

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