CWD confirmed in Nebraska whitetail herd

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Fatal disease found in deer herd .

BY JOE DUGGAN, Lincoln Journal Star

What wildlife managers consider a nightmare scenario involving a fatal deer disease got even scarier last week.
Ten days ago, the state Game and Parks Commission reported the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a confined whitetail deer herd in northwest Nebraska. Initially the agency said five animals had the illness that is the deer and elk equivalent to mad cow disease.

As more test results came in, however, officials said 12 out of 25 fenced deer tested positive for wasting disease. In Colorado and Wyoming, two other states with a history of chronic wasting disease, a 15 percent contamination rate is considered high.

"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.

There are more questions than answers at present, but this much is certain: In a week's time, the number of confirmed cases of wasting disease in the state has nearly tripled. And as the commission attempts to contain the disease and protect Nebraska's wild deer and elk, the crisis will likely 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.

Chronic wasting disease is a disorder linked to mutated proteins called prions. While scientists aren't sure what triggers the mutation, the disease causes spongy holes in the brain. Infected animals slobber, stagger, lose weight and die. The only reliable test involves killing the animal and examining its brain stem.

Wasting disease belongs to the family of disorders that includes scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. All are fatal, and there are no cures.

Scientists don't know for sure how the diseases are transmitted, but wasting disease has not been shown to infect livestock or humans. Nonetheless, health professionals urge caution and recommend people avoid eating venison from animals confirmed to have the disease.

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

The reason biologists are so troubled is because the recent infections involve whitetail deer. Whitetail deer appear more susceptible to the disease than mule deer or elk, and it is believed the illness spreads much more rapidly in the species. The fear is that if the disease gains a strong foothold in the whitetail population, it could decimate the state's deer herd.

"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 infections occurred at a fenced shooting preserve in Sioux County northwest of Crawford, Morrison said. The preserve has a fenced area where elk were raised and released for those who wanted to pay to shoot them. Next to the elk enclosure, the landowner erected a 10-foot-high fence that surrounds a section of land.

Morrison estimated that the second enclosure confined about 200 wild whitetail deer, and the landowner sold access to shoot the deer as well.

In 2000, tests revealed wasting disease in the elk herd. In response, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture quarantined the herd, which prohibits elk from leaving the facility alive.

Since then, an additional six elk have tested positive for the disease, Morrison said. The infected whitetails were discovered through testing of deer killed by customers.

Whitetails are more social than mule deer, and it's almost certain that deer outside the fenced-in area would have had nose-to-nose contact with deer exposed to the disease, Morrison said. In other words, biologists fear the disease has spread into the free-ranging whitetail population.

Attempts to reach the shooting preserve owner for comment were unsuccessful. State officials are negotiating with him to kill the animals on his property, which could involve federal payments to him for the elk.

In early January, commission staff will undertake a depopulation effort to kill 100 wild deer in the Pine Ridge region northwest of Crawford. Brain stems from the deer will be tested to give biologists some idea whether the disease has spread outside the fenced area.

In addition, the commission collected 111 deer brain stems from northwest Nebraska during the firearm hunting season. Test results on those animals are not back yet, Morrison said.

"If we find it there, we'll expand out and we'll run more depopulation operations until we quit finding it," he said. "I'm still hoping we don't find it in the wild."

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.
 

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