Guest Commentary: Elk Disease Cause for Study, Not Panic

May 2, 2016


Southwest Times Record
May 2, 2016


By Travis Lowe

Two months ago, Arkansas found Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) for the first time by way of a wild elk cow in the northwest area of the state. The finding led to reports from Arkansas wildlife officials passing it off as an isolated incident. Now, a few weeks later, there are 79 confirmed cases of CWD in the state. There is speculation by disease researchers that it has been in the state for more than 10 years.

But while the news was met with predictably dire warnings, hunters shouldn't worry.

The deer population in Arkansas is unlikely to be affected by CWD. While news reports were quick to note that CWD is "always fatal" to deer and elk (it does not affect humans), the disease has a long incubation period. Researchers looking at CWD in other states have failed to find that it has significantly affected deer populations in Wisconsin and Colorado, where it has existed in the wild for years. It's been in Arkansas for years and no one noticed.

One reason it went unnoticed is because Arkansas wasn't looking for it very hard, and the deer and elk were apparently not dying of CWD. Arkansas only tests about 500 free-ranging deer and elk every year for CWD — out of a population of 1 million animals. Arkansas isn't alone. All states have low testing rates for CWD, which has led to a situation where CWD is suddenly "found" or "pops up" where it hasn't been seen before. In fact, it's probably in more places than we know — but because it doesn't affect humans or deer populations, it has simply quietly existed.

One mystery is how it got into Arkansas in the first place. In other states, some have tried to blame the spread of CWD on deer farms and the movement of deer between farms and breeders, but there's been little credible evidence of this. In Arkansas, deer farming has been banned for years, and no deer are allowed to be imported into the state by humans.

Of course, there's no wall at the state line; free-range deer could have brought it in from neighboring areas. CWD has been found in central Missouri, and animal migration could have transported the disease. Additionally, hunters could have accidentally brought back infected carcasses from out-of-state hunts.

It is more likely, however, that CWD spread into Arkansas because of the state's elk relocation program. About 30 years ago, the state imported elk from Nebraska and (primarily) Colorado. Colorado is ground zero for CWD and it was first detected in the wild in that state around 30 years ago. Lo and behold, the first case in Arkansas was in an elk.

There is no approved CWD test for live animals, so it's hard to get a good idea of where the disease is. Institutions or businesses that participate in the federal CWD certification program, for instance, have to be CWD-free (via testing mortalities) for at least 5 years to get certification, and then must continue to track and test all of their animals to maintain certification. If CWD is found, a quarantine can be put into effect to control the disease.

In contrast, it's hard to control or eradicate CWD in the wild. It's impractical or impossible to monitor all 1 million deer in Arkansas. So what can be done?

Arkansas and neighboring states must increase their testing of free-ranging deer and elk in order to get a better idea of where CWD is. The state can't test every animal, but it can increase it to scientifically significant levels to more confidently say which areas in the state are CWD-free at present. To make this job easier, the state should invest in research into accurate tests for live animals; having to only test deceased animals is an obvious limitation.

The finding of CWD was a concern to many Arkansas hunters, though the disease had already existed in the state for some time. Hunters shouldn't worry about the disease's minimal effects on deer populations. But they should ask the state to step up its efforts.

Travis Lowe is the executive director of the North American Elk Breeders Association.

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