American Cervid Alliance

Laurie Seale:Wait for live CWD test before adding elk

January 25, 2015

Wisconsin State Journal
January 25, 2015

GILMAN — Wisconsin discovered chronic wasting disease in free-ranging deer over a decade ago. Since then, the state has expended a lot of resources trying to manage the disease and contain it to the southern part of the state.

My concern is that the state may unwittingly spread CWD to northern Wisconsin by introducing elk here.

State officials are looking to bring elk from Kentucky into two parts of Wisconsin. Officials with the state Department of Natural Resources want to bolster a herd in Ashland County and create a new herd in Jackson County.

Generally speaking, elk relocation would be a boon. But some caution is necessary.

Chronic wasting disease is a neurological disease that can affect deer and elk. (It does not affect humans).

CWD is generally rare. According to date from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the disease has a low prevalence in free-ranging deer and elk, and even lower prevalence on private farms.

But it’s tricky to track. No approved CWD test for live animals exists. Only deceased animals can be tested with accuracy.

Kentucky originally got its elk from out West, mainly Utah, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That was about the same time CWD was first discovered in Utah in deer. Kentucky’s nine-year elk introduction program reportedly lasted for less than six years due to concerns about spreading CWD.

The risk of CWD from the elk herd is likely low. But officials can better mitigate the risk of it spreading here.

Wisconsin is home to more than 450 private deer farms, including mine. Private deer farms that transfer animals within the state and between states must be CWD certified through a program managed by the USDA.

Certification requires testing of all animals older than a year that die. No animals can test positive for a minimum of 5 years for a farm to achieve USDA certification. To maintain certification, each farm must continue to test 100 percent of their eligible deer that die.

The state does not require equitable standards for elk that are relocated to Wisconsin, which is a mistake.

The USDA certification program has successfully minimized the spread of CWD in farmed deer and elk. The prevalence of CWD in farmed deer and elk is about 2 in 1,000, which is less than the prevalence among free-ranging animals.

In the rare instance where CWD is found on a farm, the certification program requires tracking of animals so they can be traced back to their source, and so facilities can be quarantined. And in those cases, it’s possible the disease was spread by free-ranging animals.

While the USDA standards for private facilities aren’t the same as for free-ranging elk herds, they could be tailored for monitoring elk. The elk relocation is being funded by private stakeholders. But the state can do its part by investing in research for an accurate CWD test for live animals.

Neither Ashland nor Jackson counties has had a positive test for CWD. State officials should do their best to keep it that way by waiting until there is a live test for CWD before adding elk.

Seale, who runs a deer farm in Taylor County, is vice president of Whitetails of Wisconsin, a nonprofit representing whitetail deer farmers and hunting preserves throughout the state.

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