Wildlife experts want to test for elk disease
SUMMIT COUNTY – Chronic wasting disease, the brain-shriveling malady affecting deer and elk, has not spread widely in nearby Summit County, but wildlife experts are still requesting that hunters submit their animals for testing as the general hunting season gets under way in mid-October.One elk shot near Green Mountain Reservoir tested positive for the disease a couple of years ago, raising concerns that it might become more prevalent locally, but Tom Kroening, Colorado Division of Wildlife manager for Summit County, said there have not been any additional cases since then. Wildlife managers suspect infected elk may have moved into Summit County across the Continental Divide, from an area where the disease had been previously recorded.
The disease has been found in parts of northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming for more than 20 years, and when the Division of Wildlife began a more rigorous testing program in 2002, it turned up on parts of the West Slope, around Steamboat Springs and as far south as Grand Junction. The disease is fatal to deer and elk. It is caused by an aberrant protein that affects the brain of animals. As its name suggests, deer and elk with the disease stagger, stumble, drool, lose weight and eventually die.”We still have an awful lot of questions,” said Kathi Green, disease management coordinator for the state wildlife agency. “But to date there’s no evidence (the disease) can be transmitted to humans.”Chronic wasting is similar to mad cow disease, which is also caused by an abnormal protein and similarly affects the brains of infected cattle. The main difference is that mad cow disease is transmissible to humans and has resulted in several deaths.
Green said chronic wasting hasn’t been found in new areas of the state recently, but the division of wildlife is requiring mandatory testing around Gunnison this year to try to determine if the disease is present in that area. Mandatory testing was dropped in the northeastern part of the state last year, where the disease is endemic and infection rates have been established, she added. Wildlife managers are doing “experimental management” in that area, trying to determine whether killing animals in infected herds has any effect on infection rates and transmission.State researchers are also still trying to pinpoint exactly how the disease spreads in the wild. In one recent experiment, they put infected carcasses into an enclosure with healthy animals, which, sure enough, were subsequently infected. It seems the disease can spread via urine and feces, but it’s not clear yet if the abnormal brain proteins, called prions, can persist in the soil.A big priority for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is a chronic wasting taste that can be done with live elk, said Tom Toman, the organization’s conservation director.
“There’s a lot of interest worldwide,” he said. “There was an outbreak in wild deer in West Virginia recently. That was the first time we’ve seen that. And it seems to be headed north from Wyoming and south from Alberta toward Montana.”If there’s good news, it’s that infection rates in wild deer and elk herds remain generally low, ranging between 1 percent and 13 percent.”It’s a big issue to me,” said Lance Schul, a Colorado-based volunteer officer with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “There’s new areas in the state with (the disease) and it seems to be spreading into other states. “Think about it,” he added. “There could be a lot of impact on the state’s hunting industry.”
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