MN officials prepare to battle chronic wasting illness

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Minnesota officials prepare to battle chronic wasting illness

March 07, 2002

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Wildlife officials hope to head off the spread of a deadly deer and elk disease into Minnesota after three whitetail bucks were found with the illness in Wisconsin last week.

A relative of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease is not known to be transmittable to humans or livestock. It hasn't been discovered in Minnesota, but Department of Natural Resources officials don't want to take any chances.

"(The disease) became a high priority for us several months ago," said Glenn DelGuidice, a DNR deer researcher based in Grand Rapids. DelGuidice said the DNR has started formulating plans to fight the illness, which attacks the brains of deer and elk.

The DNR is planning to increase its testing of wild deer shot by hunters next fall and is formulating a contingency plan for handling an outbreak of chronic wasting disease if it occurs.

Because there is evidence of disease transmission between game farms and wild deer, the DNR might tighten rules for more than 350 deer and elk game farms the agency regulates. DelGuidice said herd owners might be forced to strengthen their fences, permanently mark their animals and report escapees.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health, which regulates 236 deer and elk farms, also has started a voluntary testing program for the disease and is prohibiting animals from being imported from regions with chronic wasting disease.

"It's a pretty serious disease," said DNR wildlife research manager Mike DonCarlos. "It has a long incubation period and is fatal to deer. It has the potential to impact our deer herd. It's also not well understood at this point."

The World Health Organization has reported there's no evidence that chronic wasting disease is transmittable to humans.

Chronic wasting disease has been limited mostly to western states, but recent events suggest it has begun to spread eastward. South Dakota officials recently began killing deer in Fall River County to test for the disease, which was discovered last month during random samplings of hunter-killed deer. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department plans to kill 75 to 140 deer to find out the extent of the disease.

It's unknown how the disease was transmitted to the three deer killed by hunters in Wisconsin's Iowa and Dane counties near Madison. The Wisconsin DNR has been testing for the disease since 1997.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission recently approved a plan to cull 4,500 deer from the Fort Collins area over three years in order to stop the spread of the disease.
 



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Sun, Mar. 17, 2002    

A killer in the herd.

BY SAM COOK, DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE OUTDOORS WRITER

The recent discovery of chronic wasting disease in South Dakota and Wisconsin has put Minnesota on high alert for the fatal brain disease that affects deer and elk.

"Watching this develop has been like a prairie fire,'' said Tim Bremicker, director of the Division of Wildlife for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "There isn't a day that we don't deal with it.''

Though South Dakota found the disease in just one deer killed last fall and Wisconsin found just three in its 2001 hunt, these cases have renewed concern about the spread of the little-understood disease.

Wisconsin officials began an effort this week to kill 500 more deer in the affected area in Dane and Iowa counties and test those animals for the disease.

Minnesota officials are hustling to develop a plan in case the disease is found here, and they're making plans to do more testing for the disease this fall.

"Clearly, what's occurred in South Dakota and Wisconsin has had a definite influence on us in regard to the urgency of the issue,'' Bremicker said.

Minnesota hasn't tested as many deer as have states where the disease has been found. Nobody knows yet whether Minnesota is free of chronic wasting disease or whether it simply hasn't been found here yet.

The disease, first discovered in 1967 in Colorado, has been identified in eight states and one Canadian province. It has appeared in wild deer and elk as well as on several elk farms. A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, it is similar to so-called mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and to a 250-year-old disease in sheep called scrapie.

State and federal agencies are acting to control the spread of chronic wasting disease. For example, Colorado plans to reduce a herd of wild deer from 25,000 to 20,000 over the next three years in an area where the disease is prevalent. In Saskatchewan, 7,500 elk on CWD-positive farms have been destroyed since 2000; 227 of those elk had the disease but none exhibited symptoms before they were killed.


WISCONSIN A SURPRISE


Although the South Dakota deer found to have the disease was close to other known endemic areas in Nebraska and Wyoming, the Wisconsin finding surprised biologists and chronic wasting disease researchers.

"I was really disappointed to hear about the findings in Wisconsin,'' said Beth Williams, a veterinarian with the University of Wyoming and a leading authority on the disease. "That's a large geographic movement and into a very dense population of whitetails. I'm afraid that might be quite a problem.''

Because disease spreads more easily when animals are concentrated, there is concern that chronic wasting disease might spread more rapidly among wild deer herds here than in the West. In Colorado and Wyoming, the area where the disease was first discovered and where most cases have occurred, deer densities range from 3 to 10 per square mile. In Wisconsin, densities run from 12 to more than 50 per square mile, said Fred Strand, wildlife manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Superior. Minnesota's densities are as high as 15 to 20 per square mile.

"We're taking this very seriously,'' said Julie Langenberg, veterinarian for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "We're all concerned this could have devastating effects on our deer herd.''

There is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted naturally to livestock such as cattle, nor is there evidence that the disease is transmissible to humans. Still most wildlife agencies in the affected states offer hunters a checklist of advice about handling and eating big game.

Being cautious is wise, said the University of Wyoming's Williams.

"The evidence gathered so far indicates humans aren't highly susceptible,'' she said. "But I don't think we can say it's impossible. It makes sense to take precautions.''


MINNESOTA'S PLAN


After last fall's deer hunt, Minnesota officials tested 51 deer for chronic wasting disease, most of them from southeastern and southwestern Minnesota. A few other deer suspected of being diseased were also examined. These deer were from across the state. None of the Minnesota deer had the disease. The agency plans to increase testing this fall but hasn't determined how many deer it will examine, Bremicker said.

Because there is concern about the disease spreading with the movement of farmed deer and elk, Minnesota's Board of Animal Health last week began prohibiting the import of farmed cervids -- elk and deer -- from the affected areas in Wisconsin. An import ban already was in place on such animals from other areas where the disease had been found on farms or in the wild, said Kris Petrini, the animal health board's assistant director.

There are 237 elk and/or deer farms in Minnesota. Since 1999, the state has had a voluntary chronic wasting disease-monitoring program for the industry, and 155 farms participate.

A federal plan is being written by the Department of Agriculture that will prohibit interstate movement of farmed cervids unless they're under a proposed federal surveillance program for the disease.

"That will force everyone to be in the program,'' said Glen Zebarth of Alexandria, Minn., an elk veterinarian and elk rancher.

Zebarth said the farmed-elk industry in Minnesota has pushed to make chronic wasting disease surveillance mandatory in the state.

In addition to elk and deer farms administered by the Board of Animal Health, the Minnesota DNR licenses game farms across the state. Some of these game farms have elk or deer, although they might not be hunted. The DNR wants to tighten rules governing elk and deer on those farms, Bremicker said.

"Our standards for those facilities, given this new threat, are not adequate,'' he said.

In response to the latest news about the spread of the disease, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has urged people to reduce and eventually stop feeding wild deer. But the DNR has no immediate plans to call for a ban on recreational feeding, a practice enjoyed by thousands of state residents, Bremicker said.


WHAT'S NEXT?


Where surveillance and control of the disease has been practiced, it has been reasonably effective in containing the disease. Most people who follow the issue think the disease will show up in other places.

"I'm concerned we haven't seen the end of it yet,'' said the University of Wyoming's Williams.

"I think it's going to continue to show up in different places,'' said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "I haven't talked to anybody who doesn't have that theory. We don't know enough about it.''

There is only one diagnostic test for the disease in live animals, and it requires anesthetizing them and removing their tonsils. Researchers know the disease is caused by the presence of abnormal proteins in an animal's brain, but they still don't know the exact mechanism by which the disease is transmitted.

Meanwhile, states must focus on two kinds of surveillance to identify cases of chronic wasting disease, Williams said. They must pay particular attention to deer or elk that show possible symptoms -- being weak or emaciated, behaving unconventionally. The second form of surveillance requires examining the brains of animals killed by hunters.

"You have to have a very large sample size, and it's very expensive,'' Williams said.

Most states that have found cases of the disease in wild deer or elk have tested 400 to 1,000 animals annually.

Hunters in Minnesota and Wisconsin are quickly becoming aware of the disease, and they're asking questions.

"There's concern, interest, wondering 'What is this going to mean?' '' said the Wisconsin DNR's Strand. "There's no panic, but there's obviously much concern, and very rightfully so.''

"The concern from practically every agency wrestling with this is that hunters not panic and refuse to hunt, or refuse to fulfill their role as the principal big-game management tool,'' said John Wrede, regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department at Rapid City. "We're hearing a little bit of that, and, frankly, it's frightening.''




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SAM COOK is the News Tribune's outdoors writer. Call him at (218) 723-5332 or (800) 456-8282. E-mail him at scook@duluthnews.com. Or write him at the Duluth News Tribune, 424 W. First St., Duluth, MN 55802.
 


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