State effort halted wildlife ailment

State effort halted wildlife ailment

May 17, 2001 The Associated Press
Agriculture leaders are trying to prevent European livestock ailments such as mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease from infecting American herds.

But South Dakota has already dealt with one other malady that will be discussed Thursday at a regional conference in Sioux Falls: chronic wasting disease.

Kevin Casey barely knew what it meant when animal-health officials told him in December 1997 his family's elk herd was infected. But it didn't take him long to find out, or to discover the threat it could pose to the family tourism business and maybe even to his life.

"I didn't know what it was, so I went to the Internet and started reading about it. And then I really started getting scared," Casey said last week at Bear Country USA, the family-owned tourist attraction south of Rapid City.

He quickly learned that chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a contagious, fatal brain disorder that infects elk and deer. It is one form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE), a group of related diseases that attack brain cells.

A better-known type of TSE is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), often called mad cow disease. Almost 200,000 cases have been identified in the United Kingdom, and the disease has been detected in 12 other European countries but never in American herds.

Casey was familiar with mad cow disease and its connection to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal human brain disorder.

"My dad was a big disease guy. And I was a biology major," Casey said of the chronic wasting disease diagnosis. "We knew it. We were screwed."

Besides Bear Country, the family had elk at ranches east of Rapid City and near Hot Springs. The animals were raised for their antler velvet, specialty meat and for sale to game farms.

The discovery of the chronic wasting disease would force first the quarantine and eventually the killing of 150 to 200 elk valued between $3,000 and $4,000 each. The business received only a tax deduction in return.

Besides the financial impact, Casey was left wondering whether the virus could attack the brains of more expensive animals at Bear Country or even him.

He and other family members worked with Dr. Sam Holland, South Dakota's state veterinarian, to track any elk the Caseys had sold.

Those animals and the herds they were in also had to be quarantined. Eventually, 460 elk in six captive elk herds across the state were killed, including a private elk herd near Eureka, Holland said.

"The owner of that herd called and said he was having trouble keeping his elk alive," he said. "More or less on a whim, I said to get the brains tested."

Results from the animal diagnostic laboratory at South Dakota State University in Brookings were suspicious. Further testing at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, confirmed the illness as chronic wasting disease.

After that, state lawmakers in 1998 approved mandatory testing of all elk that die or are killed and tighter regulations on imported elk and on shipments from one herd to another.

Added to the quarantines and elimination of infected animals, those efforts seemed to be effective. This March, the South Dakota Animal Industry Board proclaimed South Dakota to be free of known cases of chronic wasting disease.

"Our experience demonstrates that with a good, solid mandatory program, this disease can be eliminated," Holland said.

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