Ag secretary moves to stop CWD spread in West

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October 15, 2001.

Secretary allots $2.6 million to help sick elk

By JOHN STROMNES of the Missoulian

Emergency funds will be used to stop spread of CWD

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman has authorized $2.6 million in emergency funds to help stop the spread of chronic wasting disease in elk and deer on game farms in several Western states, including Montana.

Much of the money will be used to compensate at fair market value owners of elk from CWD-infected herds for the animals that must be destroyed to stop the spread of the disease.

State funds have not been adequate to meet this need, Veneman said. In Montana, for example, state law allows $50 per head compensation for animals destroyed because of disease eradication programs. Game farm owners of suspect infected animals are responsible for paying for testing as well, according to Mark Taylor, an attorney for the Montana Alternative Livestock Producers, a game-farm group. An adult elk can be worth anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000 or more, he said.

The action was taken Sept. 27, but it became widely known in Montana only last week, through e-mail distribution of the document by interested parties.

Chronic wasting disease primarily afflicts elk and deer, but it can infect others of the cervid family, both wild and domestic, including reindeer, moose, caribou and related species. It is always fatal, has no cure and no vaccine.

"Without a federal program in place to depopulate infected and exposed animals, the movement of infected elk into new herds and states with no known infection will continue or even accelerate," Veneman said.

The funds will also be used to increase surveillance and diagnostic testing for the disease, and training of producers and veterinarians, she said.

In order to earmark the funds, which originally were appropriated to the Commodity Credit Corp., Veneman declared chronic wasting disease to be a national emergency "that threatens the livestock industry of this country."

A major backer of the emergency declaration was the national industry group, the North American Elk Breeders Association.

A Montana wildlife conservation group, Montana Wildlife Federation, said Tuesday the emergency federal action is welcome, but doesn't go far enough to protect wild game herds, which may become infected by game-farm elk and deer. The disease is already proved to be present in wild herds of deer and elk in southeastern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska. How it got there, nobody knows.

"This is a Band-Aid approach," said Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the group that successfully promoted the anti-game farm measure Initiative 143, which is currently under challenge in federal court.

"It appears they (federal agencies) are willing to pay for slaughter of infected herds, but are unwilling to stop the movement of the animals even though there is no live test for CWD," he said in a prepared statement.

"While the action might inhibit or slow the disease from spreading, it won't stop it until there is a moratorium on shipping." Sharpe said.

Game farming spokesman Taylor said Montana already has a five-year moratorium on the import of animals into the states, which corresponds with the presumed incubation period of the disease. Most states are considering similar action, and a federal agency is evaluating uniform rules to address the disease nationwide. A total ban on interstate shipment goes too far, he said.

The funding "will reduce the spread of CWD in captive elk herds and discourage entry of positive or exposed animals into the human and animal food chains, and should save the federal government and farmed elk industry from having to deal with a more costly and widespread problem later," Veneman said in the emergency declaration published in the Federal Register.

Montana taxpayers paid more than $60,000 to destroy a herd of 81 elk on a game farm in Philipsburg in December 1999. The carcasses were incinerated on site. Nine of the elk were found to have chronic wasting disease. Some elk from that herd that had been shipped to a game farm in Hardin have also been destroyed, a state Department of Livestock spokeswoman said Tuesday.

In recent years, CWD has been found in 14 captive elk herds in Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, as well as Montana. It is also present in herds in Saskatchewan.

Of the 2,300 game-farm elk herds in the United States, totaling 110,000 animals, currently only four herds with a total of approximately 1,000 animals are known to be CWD-positive. Montana currently has no known herds harboring chronic wasting disease.

However, Veneman warned that no one knows the full extent of infection in farmed elk in the United States.

"Limited funds and the absence of a (federal) CWD program have allowed the (federal) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct only minimal surveillance and testing, and not depopulation," she said. Depopulation refers to killing elk in herds suspected of harboring the disease.

Chronic wasting disease is invariably fatal, the most obvious sign being otherwise unexplained weight loss over time leading to death. There is currently no test that can diagnose the disease in a live animal. The cause is unclear, but it is believed to be similar to those pathogens or disease factors that cause scrapie and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.

A separate USDA press release emphasized there is currently no evidence that CWD is linked to disease in humans, or even in domestic animals other than deer and elk.

But Veneman, in her emergency declaration, acknowledged that a theoretical risk of such a link exists.

"Public perception and continued fears that CWD from deer and elk could cause disease in humans or in domestic livestock could destroy the markets for elk or deer products," she said.

"As demonstrated in Europe, once shaken, consumer confidence is very difficult to rebuild," she said. An outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe caused a massive slaughter of livestock and dramatically reduced consumer demand for beef.

As for game-farm elk and deer, already, Canada has prohibited the import of U.S. cervid species, mainly deer and elk, and their products. Korea is temporarily suspending importation from both the United States and Canada.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or jstromnes@missoulian.com.
 
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