Fatal deer and elk illness: Are we ready?
Chronic wasting disease could devastate Idaho herds
The Idaho Statesman
December 7, 2003
Chronic wasting disease has never been found in Idaho, but biologists and hunters are increasingly concerned because the fatal disease of deer and elk is spreading erratically, and other states have killed thousands of animals in attempts to control it.
Idaho officials are prepared to kill deer and elk here if the disease is ever found. It could disrupt hunting seasons and devastate the game ranch and hunting industry.
Some hunters say Idaho is not doing enough to prevent CWD from crossing its borders. Tom Judge, president of Idaho State Bowhunters, said the biggest concern he hears from his fellow hunters is that the disease will come to Idaho through game farms.
“I don´t think most people are concerned about a natural migration of the disease into Idaho. It´s not something that would probably come into Idaho on its own,” said Tom Judge of Boise, who is president of Idaho State Bowhunters.
Others brace for the disease´s debut. “I think we will be extremely fortunate if it doesn´t show up here eventually,” said Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker.
What is chronic wasting disease?
Chronic wasting disease belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.
There is no cure or vaccination for the fatal brain disease, and scientists don´t know how it´s spread. It attacks the animals´ brains and causes weight loss, excessive drooling, shaking and stumbling.
It affects only deer and elk and is not transmitted to humans, cows, horses, sheep or other livestock.
It is similar to other TSE diseases, such as mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep. There also is a rare form of the disease called Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease that affects humans.
“I think what has really pushed the alarm button is these TSEs are related to mad cow disease,” Huffaker said.
Will it come to Idaho?
CWD has been found in 12 states and two Canadian provinces, including three states that border Idaho.
The disease was first discovered at a research station in Colorado near the Wyoming border, and biologists say it could slowly be spreading from there, but it also has leapfrogged into other areas.
Biologists are puzzled and troubled by CWD because no one has scientifically proven how animals contract the disease, nor has it been eradicated in the wild.
F&G wildlife veterinarian Phil Mamer said the disease appears to be gradually moving west.
“It´s spreading and being detected more, and it´s a reasonable assumption we will find it in Idaho” Mamer said.
“When, I have no idea. Hopefully by then we will have a much better idea of how to eliminate the disease.”
Wyoming and Utah both have CWD in their wild herds, and Montana reported one case on a game ranch.
CWD also has leaped across the Mississippi into Wisconsin´s deer herds, and it was found in southern New Mexico in wild deer at the White Sands Missile Range, hundreds of miles from any other known cases.
Most Western states, including Idaho, have increased surveillance for the disease and have tested tens of thousands of animals killed by hunters and domestic deer and elk killed at slaughterhouses.
“Once a disease occurs, people start looking for it,” Mamer said. “People say it´s spreading rapidly, but how do we know if it has never been tested before?”
What’s being done to control CWD
In the fall of 2001, Mamer, then a Caldwell veterinarian, helped kill 37 domestic elk. Days earlier, the elk had been a tourist attraction at a bed and breakfast in Salmon.
The herd had been exposed before it came to Idaho to an elk that died from CWD. Because there is no live test for the disease, the animals had to be killed and tested.
All tested negative. But the elk and their owners, Ron and Gloria Stigall of Salmon, became CWD´s first victims in Idaho.
“We were killing this guy´s life savings and his family pets,” Mamer said.
The Idaho F&G has been monitoring for the disease since 1997. Surveillance methods have included testing animals killed by vehicles and those that appear sick.
Last year, F&G tested 680 animals killed by hunters, and the agency plans to test 1,700 more this year. None have tested positive.
F&G, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Idaho Department of Agriculture also have taken steps to stop the disease from coming into the state.
In 2001, F&G banned the importation of captive mule deer and white-tailed deer into Idaho.
That ban does not apply to domestic elk, which are regulated by the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Idaho classifies captive elk as livestock, which puts them under rules similar to those that regulate cattle, sheep and horses.
Since 2000, the Idaho Department of Agriculture has required that all domestic elk come from herds that are CWD-free. Permits are required to buy, sell or transport elk into the state. Any captive elk in Idaho that are slaughtered, are shot or die of other causes must be tested for the disease under state rules.
Officials from F&G and from the Department of Agriculture say neither has enough personnel to oversee the actions of every game ranch operator.
“That´s something we at state government have struggled with since time began,” Department of Agriculture state veterinarian Clarence Siroky said.
The state has five inspectors who are responsible for all livestock operations, including elk farms. For some idea of what the five inspectors are responsible for, there were 11,500 cattle operations in the state in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available. That figure doesn´t include the number of sheep and hog operations.
There are at least 90 game ranches in the state, but because the state doesn´t require a license to open one, officials aren´t sure just how many there are.
“This whole thing is about minimizing risk,” the F&G director, Huffaker, said. “It´s such an onerous task trying to prevent any possibility that we would have to seal up the whole state, and that´s not realistic.”
In the United States and Canada, thousands of domestic deer and elk have been killed as officials tried to control the spread of CWD.
Colorado, Wisconsin, Nebraska and South Dakota have allowed thousands of wild deer and elk to be shot during liberalized hunting seasons to control the spread of the disease. In some cases they used government sharpshooters to kill herds.
“The problem is in the wild,” Mamer said. “What are you going to do, take some super disinfectant and spray the forest?”
Is Idaho doing enough?
Tom Judge has two concerns about the state´s management of game farms: The state doesn´t do enough to keep wild elk and domestic elk separated, and an elk ranch could be started in an area where wild elk could be exposed to domestic animals because there are no restrictions on where an elk ranch can be placed.
Judge also said that because CWD affects only deer and elk, the state isn´t as concerned as it would be if the disease affected livestock. He said the state favors the agricultural industry over wildlife.
“I would think you would see a much stronger reaction from Idaho Department of Agriculture if this was mad cow disease rather than CWD,” Judge said.
Veterinarian Siroky disagrees. He said Idaho´s regulations, as well as those in other states, have put adequate controls in place.
“I don´t know of any states out there that don´t have fairly aggressive CWD regulations,” he said. “Screws are tightened down pretty hard on this industry right now.”
According to the National Wildlife Federation, 31 states have put temporary or permanent bans on the importation of captive deer and elk, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming. Utah does not allow game ranches, and Montana is in the process of phasing them out after a voter initiative halted any new game farms from starting.
New Mexico recently lifted its ban on importing captive deer and elk but does not allow them to be imported from anywhere CWD has been found within the previous five years.
Idaho allows importation of captive elk and does not license game farms.
But the state and federal departments of Agriculture regulate the movement of elk within the state and from other states.
Other states also regulate the importation of game animals killed by hunters. Oregon bans import of animals killed in states that have CWD, and other states, such as Washington and Montana, recommend that their hunters bring back only boneless meat and antlers removed from the skull.
Idaho does not restrict the importation of legally harvested deer and elk from other states.
No one knows how CWD is spread
CWD is most likely transmitted through urine, feces, saliva and nasal mucus, but no one knows for sure, Mamer said.
Another possible mode of transmission is environmental contamination, where the disease gets into the soil or vegetation; CWD recurs in areas where animals have been removed and then later are returned.
Game ranches take a lot of the blame for the spread of the disease.
“That´s where it always shows up first in other states,” said James England, veterinarian at the University of Idaho´s Caine Veterinary Center in Caldwell. “Almost all the cases have been associated with captive herds.”
But Siroky said recent media attention to CWD and the reaction from hunters and wildlife advocates has created an emotional response against game farms that is not warranted.
“People are not looking at it from a science-based point of view,” Siroky said. “This is a much more difficult issue than, ´Let´s blame it on the game farms.´ CWD existed (in wild animals) in Wyoming and Colorado for years. Where was the public outcry then?”
Opponents of game farms also have played the CWD card in an effort to shut down the industry, he said.
“They feel they can use tuberculosis, brucellosis and CWD to justify their belief that game farms philosophically should not be allowed,” Siroky said. “Don´t use a disease to justify that kind of ideology.”
Deer showing symptoms of CWD were first reported in 1967 at a Colorado wildlife research facility but the symptoms were not identified as a disease until 1977.
Researchers at the Colorado facility tried to eradicate the disease by plowing, burning and disinfecting the soil where animals were kept.
At a Wyoming facility, deer and elk were removed for more than a year.
In both cases, CWD recurred after deer and elk were returned to the research facilities.
“Once you´ve got it, you´re probably never going to get rid of it,” Huffaker said. “You´ve just got to live with it.”
Being exposed to the disease does not mean an animal will contract it, but animals that have been exposed are usually killed and tested. Even a negative test means a dead animal, and in some cases, extermination of entire herds.
In 2001, the 37 captive elk from Salmon were killed because, before coming to Idaho, the herd was exposed to another captive elk that had tested positive for CWD.
The incident sent shock waves through the elk ranching and hunting community because captive elk and wild elk will occasionally have nose-to-nose contact through a fence, Mamer said.
Had the domestic elk been infected, they could have passed the disease to their wild counterparts.
“Idaho pretty much dodged a bullet,” Mamer said.
But F&G officials are concerned we won´t dodge the next one. They are closely watching “shooter bull” operations in the state, in which people pay to shoot elk in penned enclosures up to thousands of acres in size and often in prime elk habitat. That increases the potential for interactions between wild and domestic elk, Mamer said.
Recently, a wild bull elk was killed in the Magic Valley because it kept returning to a pen where domestic elk were held. Although the elk never got inside, F&G officials said they killed it because of the possibility that diseases could be passed between the domestic elk and the wild one.
Those encounters could increase as more shooter bull operations start. As game ranches, they don´t have to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture.
What is Idaho’s plan?
The state has two plans, one for domestic and one for wild animals.
In domestic populations in which animals test positive for CWD, the herd could be quarantined, killed or incinerated, according to Department of Agriculture rules.
If CWD shows up in wild deer and elk, F&G would kill and test at least 50 animals within a 5-mile radius. If no more tested positive, F&G would continue to test animals killed during regular hunting seasons.
If more animals tested positive, deer and elk herds would be reduced by a minimum of 25 to 50 percent within a 5-mile radius.
“If required, eradication of all potentially affected free-ranging deer and elk within 1 mile of known affected animals will be considered within reasonable constraints of cost, manpower and personnel safety,” F&G´s action plan states.
“I don´t know what the alternative is,” Huffaker said. “As time goes on and we learn more about this thing, maybe there will be better ways to deal with it.”
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