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Variant of Mad Cow Disease Hits Great Lakes Region

New York Times

Wildlife experts from the United States and Canada are meeting here to discuss strategies for containing the spread of chronic wasting disease, the variant of mad cow disease that kills deer and elk.

The malady, once found only in the brushy foothills near Fort Collins, Colo., has now been identified in both captive and wild herds of deer and elk in Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Some states, like New Mexico, have found only one infected animal in the wild. But Saskatchewan, for example, has diagnosed the disease in more than 100 captive animals bred for their meat and antlers.

At a two-day symposium on the disease, which began here today, officials from the nine states and provinces described where they were finding the disease and what they were doing about it. Prevalence rates run from 0.002 percent to more than 20 percent of animals surveyed. Over all, a few hundred deer and elk have been diagnosed with the disease out of tens of thousands killed for scientific analysis.

"We know that sick animals are the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Michael Miller, a veterinarian who studies the disease for the Colorado Department of Wildlife in Fort Collins.

Researchers do not know how the disease spreads among animals in either the wild or in captivity, Dr. Miller said, nor does anyone know how to control it. It may spread directly from animal to animal, or through contact with infected urine, feces or drool.

Many experts believe that the practice of selling captive deer and elk, now banned in most states, is what led the disease to spread from Colorado into neighboring states as well as to Wisconsin, which is 1,000 miles east — too far for deer to walk.

The Saskatchewan outbreak was traced to an elk imported from South Dakota in 1989. By October 2001, officials said, 450 elk from Colorado had been shipped to farms in other states, including 20 animals to Wisconsin.

The 20 elk exposed to chronic wasting disease were sold to some of Wisconsin's 975 deer and elk farm operations, said Dr. Julie Langenberg, a veterinarian at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There have been 24 documented escapes of captive white-tailed deer from these farms in the last 30 months, Dr. Langenberg said, but the actual number is probably much higher. No chronic wasting disease has been found in any captive elk or deer in the state, she added, but since last February, 24 wild white-tailed deer have been found with the disease.

Wisconsin is taking aggressive steps to control the disease, Dr. Langenberg said. Starting in mid-September, hunters are encouraged to kill as many deer as possible in the area west of Madison where most of the sick animals have been found. In other parts of the state, hunters will be asked to turn over deer heads for testing.

Chronic wasting disease is a close relative of mad cow disease, which has led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cattle around the world and especially in Britain, where the disease was first found.

A human form of mad cow disease, called new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has killed 125 people, mostly Britons. Experts worry that chronic wasting disease might also spread to humans who eat infected deer or elk, but experts said at today's meeting that there is no evidence this has happened in the United States.

Still, health officials in some states have urged hunters to exercise caution when dressing meat from animals they kill.

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