Iowa begins CWD testing


Mar 11, 2001
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Officials check deer in Iowa for disease

By JULI PROBASCO-SOWERS, Des Moines Register Staff Writer


Iowa conservation officials have begun collecting brain tissue from road-kill deer to determine whether a deadly disease has infected Iowa's deer population.

Discovery of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin deer herds during the winter prompted the move. Natural resources officials in that state plan to kill an estimated 15,000 deer this spring - the entire deer herd in a 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb, Wis.

"We can't say there is not chronic wasting disease in Iowa, but we have not found evidence of it yet," said Terry Little, wildlife research supervisor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "It is a very serious potential problem and no one knows to what extent it will grow in the population. In most free-ranging deer, it's a low percentage of animals which contract it."

The disease poses no known danger to humans, but officials are not sure that's the case and urge caution in handling carcasses.

State officials are worried that if the disease infects Iowa deer herds, it could hurt the deer hunting industry. In Wisconsin, deer hunting is estimated to have a yearly $1 billion economic impact, with 700,000 hunters in the field.

About 180,000 deer hunters look for game annually in Iowa, producing an estimated $100 million impact, said Little.

"In addition, deer hunting is a large source of license revenue for all state fisheries and wildlife agencies. It pays for wildlife habitat work," Little said.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by a protein that turns normal proteins into abnormal ones, eventually affecting the animal's brain. The ailment is similar to mad cow disease, said state biologist Dale Garner. Scientists know the disease spreads among deer in close contact.

Wildlife officials plan to ask at a meeting today that the Natural Resources Commission impose a four-month moratorium on bringing captive deer into Iowa, unless the deer come from a herd certified as disease-free, Little said.

Captive deer are raised for breeding or to stock hunting preserves. The moratorium will give officials time to come up with a way to monitor and test the captive deer, since the only known test is done on dead animals.

The World Health Organization said there are no known cases of humans contracting the disease from eating venison, but the agency advises people not to eat meat from an animal known to be diseased. Garner and Little said they will continue to eat venison.

Greg Matthews, spokesman for Wisconsin Natural Resources, said biologists suspect the disease entered that state through a captive deer transported by people. However, there is the possibility the disease has always existed in deer herds. The disease was found in Colorado elk at least 30 years ago.

While Wisconsin is undertaking the largest eradication program of any state, deer also are being destroyed in parts of Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Iowa biologists hope to collect 100 to 150 brain stem samples from road-kill deer this month to send to the National Animal Disease Laboratory in Ames. Results on whether the animals have the disease are expected this summer.

Even if no diseased animals are found, state officials plan to set up stations during the deer hunting seasons this fall and winter to collect samples.

"We would like to test 1,000 animals by the end of December. That should tell us if we have the disease here. We may do this two or three more years until we have a handle on it," Little said.

Game-farm owner Barry McGrew of Chelsea said he would welcome a monitoring program for the disease, if the state would pay producers if their herds are infected and must be destroyed.

Officials estimate there are 1,844 captive deer in Iowa, compared with an estimated 340,000 wild deer. Game-breeding farms supply animals to petting zoos, parks and hunting preserves. Captive deer also are used to produce scents and lures used in deer hunting, meat for human consumption and deer antler velvet used in home remedies, said Garner.
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