Ag officials not 'panicked' by wasting disease

October 11, 2001 Idaho Falls Post Register by Rob Thornberry
Despite an outbreak of chronic wasting disease in Colorado and the imminent destruction of a domestic elk herd in Salmon, Idaho officials aren't "panicked" about a spread of the disease to Idaho wild herds.

"We haven't had a positive test yet," said Phil Mamer, a veterinarian for the Idaho Department of Agriculture. "Sure the disease is a concern, but I think the problem is being overblown."

One hunting group, however, called the disease a threat to the state's wildlife and called for a temporary ban on importing deer and elk into the state. So far this fall, five elk at Colorado ranches have died of chronic wasting disease, an infection that strikes the animal's brain and causes it to drool profusely, waste away and eventually die.

There is no cure for the disease, no way to test for it in live animals. Scientists don't know how it transfers from animal to animal, and they don't know how long the disease incubates before an animal shows any symptoms.

Sparked by fears the disease will spread, Colorado officials will destroy 1,300 of state's 16,000 captive elk in the coming weeks.

Some in Colorado, including former Fish and Game director John Mumma, are calling for the end of elk ranching because they fear the disease will decimate wild herds.

Mamer thinks banning elk ranching is too drastic and argues Idaho has a handle on the disease, which he points out has been present in wild herds in northeast Colorado and southeast Wyoming for years but has never caused a massive die-off.

"The incidence of the disease is low and right now we don't have any evidence we have it here. That's why I'm not overly concerned," he said.

Idaho is linked to the Colorado problem because a Salmon-area rancher, Ron Stigall, purchased a herd in January that was exposed to one of the Colorado elk that died this fall.

Because Stigall's 37 elk were exposed, Mamer's crew quarantined the herd Sept. 19. They will be killed and tested in the coming weeks to see if any animals were infected.

If they are infected, Stigall won't be able to put elk on that property for five years for fear the disease will lie dormant in the soil and attack any new herd.

If none was infected, 17 calves born this spring will be allowed to live on Stigall's Cross Canyon Ranch under strict supervision for at least five years. Stigall will not be able to sell or transfer elk until Idaho officials believe the herd is free of the disease.

"Mr. Stigall did everything legal," Mamer said. "This is an unfortunate wreck."

Despite the fact there may be infected elk on Stigall's ranch, Mamer said Idaho hunters shouldn't be worried.

"We've got a program in place that will give us a handle on the disease," he said.

Recently enacted rules call for mandatory wasting disease tests for all captive elk over 16 months old that die. So far, 80 elk have been tested in Idaho and none has had the disease.

The new laws also create a clear paper trail behind all elk brought into the state. Officials believe the documentation will allow them to respond quickly if any of the state's captive elk become sick and die.

The paper trail will help, but Idaho officials are handicapped because the disease can lie dormant in an elk for years, then pop up unexpectedly.

Mamer understands that uncertainty frightens some people, but he said his department is watching elk ranches carefully.

"We're in a good situation to deal with any potential problems," he said.

Bill Goodnight, vice president of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said the state's rules on importing elk and deer are far too lax.

The federation, which represents 5,000 hunters, wants a moratorium on bringing elk into the state until scientists can develop a test on live animals. The federation also wants game farms to be ringed with two layers of fence to keep domestic animals away from wild game.

"We are sitting on a big problem," Goodnight said.

Idaho wildlife officials are also watching the situation. Repeatedly, they've stressed their fear the disease will jump from an elk ranch to a wild herd. Fish and Game has no authority over game farms.

"I think everybody is clear on our concerns," said Steve Huffaker, chief of Fish and Game's wildlife division.

Wildlife biologists are also watching chronic wasting disease in wild herds. Game wardens collect brain tissue from road kill to test for the disease and biologists are on the lookout for suspicious carcasses at check stations. So far, no animals have tested positive, Huffaker said.

Hunters have been asked to report animals that are sick-looking and they have been told to be careful handling brain tissues.

"It certainly wouldn't hurt my feelings if elk ranches were abolished, but I don't think that is reality as long as there is money to be made," Huffaker said.

Huffaker hopes the elk farming industry will push for tougher rules to keep wild elk safe. "I think it is in their best interest to have the best surveillance possible," he said.

Mamer applauds the efforts of the state's 61 elk ranchers.

"These elk ranchers are just as big of elk lovers as anybody else," he said.

"They don't want chronic wasting disease in their herds or wild herds, and they are doing everything they possibly can."

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