Cases of wasting disease nearly triple in week's time

December 23, 2001 The Associated Press
The number of confirmed cases of chronic wasting disease in the state nearly tripled in the last week, sending wildlife officials scrambling to contain the disease that strikes deer and elk.

The jump in cases began 10 days ago when state Game and Parks Commission discovered the disease in a confined whitetail deer herd near Crawford in northwest Nebraska.

Initially, the agency said five animals had the illness, but further testing showed 12 of the 25 fenced deer at a shooting preserve had contracted the disease. "An infection rate of 50 percent, that's phenomenal. That's off the charts," said Kirk Nelson, the commission's assistant director in charge of wildlife and fisheries.

In Colorado and Wyoming, two other states with a history of chronic wasting disease, a 15 percent contamination rate is considered high.

As the commission tries to contain the disease and protect Nebraska's wild deer and elk, the crisis could cost hunters and taxpayers thousands of dollars.

"The sportsmen are losing our game fund dollars, and we're losing our animals. It's a bad deal," said Joe Herrod of Lincoln, a representative from the Nebraska Council of Sportsmen's Club who recently served on a wasting disease legislative task force.

Wasting disease causes spongy holes in the deer's or elk's brain. Infected animals slobber, stagger, lose weight and eventually die.

The illness belongs to the family of disorders that includes scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Wasting disease is fatal, and there is no cure.

Because the infection rate is so high among whitetail deer, state wildlife officials fear Nebraska's wild deer population could be decimated if the disease is not contained.

"The only way this could get worse is if we find a bunch more of it in the wild," said Bruce Morrison, a wildlife division administrator who is the agency's point man on wasting disease. "We basically consider this a wildlife disease emergency."

The disease first showed up in Nebraska in 1998 in a captive elk herd in Cherry County. It later was found in elk ranches in Cheyenne and Sioux counties. Since 2000, biologists have found wasting disease in two wild mule deer hunted in Kimball County.

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