'Mad Deer' strikes wildlife


"At this point, we don't view CWD as a public health emergency, meaning as a threat to humans"

—Bernadette Burden, Federal Centers for Disease Control

Game hunters in the western portion of the United States are being urged to take extra precautions if eating several species of deer and elk as a disease related to Mad Cow Disease continues to spread among wild and domestic herds of those animals.

Known as Chronic Wasting Disease, or Mad Deer Disease, the affliction is part of the same family as Mad Cow Disease. At this time, federal officials are not treating CWD as a major health threat, according to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Centers for Disease Control.

"At this point, we don't view CWD as a public health emergency, meaning as a threat to humans," said Bernadette Burden, a spokesperson for the CDC.

Still, hunters in states where CWD has been detected are being urged to take precautions, as it is not outside the realm of possibility that CWD could harm people, explained John Pape, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health.

"As far as the public health implication, the disease has been around in Colorado for at least 40 years and we have not been able to detect any public health risk," Pape said. "But the evidence is not conclusive enough to say there's absolutely not any health risk."

Wisconsin will receive $3.5 million in federal aid to combat the disease.

Animals affected by the disease exhibit a poor body condition, tremors, stumbling, increased salivation and a tendency to loose their fear of people. It has been found in wild deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Montana, according to the USDA.

The disease was first found in 1967 in Fort Collins, Colo., but has been attracting more attention from federal agencies and the media in recent years. Federal and state agencies are working in several main areas to gain control over the disease, including testing wild and domestic deer and elk; killing off infected animals; and devising more accurate tests to detect CWD. In some states, more deer hunting permits have been granted to stop the spread of CWD.

Those hunters are being given letters with information about CWD when they receive their permits, Pape said.

"If they're hunting in the endemic area, they should wear gloves while field dressing the animals," Pape said.

A common sense precaution hunters should take is not shooting any animal that appears sick. Areas of the animal which house the infection, including the brain, spinal cord, eyes, lymph nodes and spleen should be discarded and not eaten by humans.

"When you have your animal processed, have it done separately," Pape said. "If you do test your animal and it tests positive you shouldn't eat it."

The USDA began testing and tracking infected deer and elk in 1997 and in 2001, they began a program to eradicate the disease in affected populations, according to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA.

This year, the USDA has obtained $12.2 million in funding to help their efforts to rid deer and elk herds of CWD. Most recently, those funds were used to buy-out farmed elk herds in Colorado, where about 15 ranches with 1,000 animals are expected to participate. The USDA will buy the elk at 95 percent of their value from the ranchers.

The Wisconsin state legislature is making the spread of Mad Deer disease a priority and just appropriated $4 million to study and regulate the disease. Special Session Senate Bill 1, which appropriated the funds, was signed into law by Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum earlier this spring. The bill will allow the Department of Natural Resources to regulate the feeding of wild animals for purposes other than hunting, allow them to designate eradication zones for the disease and to test captive deer and elk herds for the disease.

McCallum met with USDA Undersecretary William Hawks to discuss Mad Deer Disease on May 20 to garner federal support for the problem.

"It is extremely important for us to work with the federal government on testing, research and certification of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab," McCallum said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is working to find testing methods that are able to identify infected animals sooner. Currently, deer and elk cannot be tested unless they are dead.

"Several research facilities have been working at developing reliable alternate CWD tests that detect CWD earlier in the cycle," explained Julie Langenberg, a wildlife veterinarian for the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources. "Working with research partners to use new tests to better diagnose CWD will improve our chances of successfully eradicating the disease."

This April, the Colorado Wildlife Federation launched a fund-raising campaign to fund research into CWD. The research will be conducted through Colorado State University and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"While we‚ve learned a great deal about chronic wasting disease over the past five years, there's much more we need to understand if we're to successfully manage the disease," said Wayne East, the Executive Director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. "Money and resources need to be focused on research so we can stop this disease from spreading to new areas of Colorado and throughout North America."

As the disease continues to attract more attention, some people seem to be changing their attitude toward hunting deer and elk in the wild, Pape said, while others are not too concerned.

"Everybody has their own degree of risk assessment," Pape said. "I've talked to a lot of hunters on this. A lot say, "We've been hunting here for three generations and we're going to continue.‚"

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