Wildlife officials in the Midwest are battling the appearance of a deadly illness found in elk and deer. Called chronic wasting disease, or CWD, this ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Several captive elk herds in the western U.S. and Canada have been infected with chronic wasting disease. Those herds have now been quarantined, but not before other animals from those herds were sold to farmers in 21 states nationwide, including several in the Midwest. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this first report of a two-part series:
Wildlife officials in the Midwest are battling the appearance of a deadly illness found in elk and deer. Called chronic wasting disease, or CWD, this ailment attacks an animal’s brain, slowly eating away healthy tissue. Several captive elk herds in the western U.S. and Canada have been infected with chronic wasting disease. Those herds have now been quarantined, but not before other animals from those herds were sold to farmers in 21 states nationwide, including several in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby reports.
Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disorder. That means it affects the nervous system of elk and deer. It’s related to a number of other conditions, including scrapies in sheep and mad cow disease. Humans can also contract something similar — it’s called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
All these conditions are related — and that’s making some health officials nervous. That’s because at least one, mad cow, can be transferred to humans. Dennis Stauffer is a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He says now more and more people are also keeping an eye on CWD.
“It’s been called the mad cow disease of deer. It is certainly similar biologically. There are also some important differences. Unlike mad cow disease, or CWD as we call it, we don’t yet have any evidence it is transmittable to humans. So that particular health risk is not confirmed.”
But that doesn’t stop people from worrying.
In the 1990s, mad cow disease in Great Britain triggered a similar ailment in humans, eventually killing dozens of people. But public health officials downplayed that possibility, leading to less vigilance in eliminating mad cow. Some people now say the same thing is happening here with CWD. Sheldon Rampton is the author of “Mad Cow U.S.A.”
“You are getting the same pattern of reassurances. The same pattern of government authorities and government scientists coming forward and not quite saying there is no danger, but saying they don’t see any evidence of danger. And then saying that in such a way that the public is led to believe that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”
One of the problems is, little is known about the disease. Kris Petrini is a veterinarian with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
“We don’t know exactly what the incubation period is. We don’t know the youngest possible time an animal can get infected. The testing itself, right now, the only test we have that we can do is the animal has to be sacrificed and the brain tested.”
The outward signs of CWD aren’t exhibited until death is near. Again, Dennis Stauffer of the Minnesota DNR.
“Well, if you were to see a picture of one of these animals, they would be stumbling around, they would look wasted away. In advance stages, they would look disoriented, they would tend not to fear humans. They would look very, very sick and it would be very obvious that they are sick animals.”
Since learning that 36 elk from CWD-infected herds in Colorado and Canada were imported to Minnesota, state officials have set up a voluntary CWD surveillance program. All herds with exposed animals are participating in the program. Of the elk tested for CWD so far, none have had CWD.
(sound from Spooner, Wisconsin deer testing station: Cars on nearby two-lane highway.)
In neighboring Wisconsin, state officials are aggressively testing for CWD. On the opening weekend of deer hunting season, veterinarians took hundreds of brain samples from dead animals at locations throughout the state. In previous years, such efforts turned up no cases of CWD in the wild deer population, just like Minnesota. Ken Jonas is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“Right now, I’m not too concerned. If I were in Colorado or perhaps Wyoming or a state that was near to a chronic infection, I would be very concerned.”
While Kris Petrini, the Minnesota veterinarian, understands CWD hasn’t made it into the wild deer population, she says she wouldn’t be surprised to find it among the captive elk population in the state.
“No, not completely. Not with the number of elk we have and the amount of trading that goes on in the industry, I think it is highly possible that we will find chronic wasting disease.”
Six western states are home to elk herds with CWD infections. Elk farmers in another 15 states — including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — own animals from the original infected herds. So far, tests haven’t turned up any traces of CWD in herds with exposed animals in those states.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby in Minneapolis.