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Fatal wildlife disease raises alarm

If ailment moves into Oregon, elk and deer industry could suffer

A wildlife disease fatal to deer and elk is feared to be spreading in the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states, prompting Oregon wildlife and agriculture officials to notch up their state of alert.

There are no signs that chronic wasting disease Ñalso called CWD Ñ is present in Oregon, but field biologists for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have increased their oversight efforts.

CWD is a degenerative nerve disease similar to mad cow disease, although there's no evidence that it can affect humans. Still, many health organizations, including Health Canada, warn against consuming the meat of an infected deer or elk.

Should evidence of CWD turn up in Oregon, the economic impact in sparsely settled areas of the state could be significant.

A 1996 federal survey said hunters spend $614 million annually in Oregon on trip-related expenses, equipment and other costs.

Anne Pressentin, spokeswoman for the fish and wildlife agency, called hunting 'a huge deal,' particularly in many of Eastern Oregon's small towns. From Prineville to Baker City, Fossil, Paisley and John Day, she said, 'they plan for having hunters come in. They count on that income.'

Rural communities 'see an influx of people coming in, getting ice, last-minute stuff, something they forgot,' she said. 'It becomes part of the outing: They gear up and stop in the same town every year and check fire conditions, stop in the store, kibitz with the locals, then go out and spend a week in the woods.'

Owners of the state's 15 elk farms also are concerned that CWD could cripple their fledgling industry.

State wildlife officials have been on the lookout for CWD-affected animals since 1998. And last year they tested several hundred hunter-killed deer and elk for the disease.

But recent discoveries of CWD in Wisconsin and western Colorado suggest that the disease is spreading. Officials say they don't know how it was transmitted to animals in the new locations.

A deputy administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told a New York Times reporter that the positive CWD test results had plunged that state into a crisis mode. Deer hunting is a $2.6 billion industry in Wisconsin.

'It's tough to describe the magnitude. It is a huge problem,' said Jack Mortenson, a veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's deer and elk program who has visited states that are battling wasting disease.

'There is grave concern on many different levels over this disease, for wildlife in the wild and for farmed herds,' he said.

Mortenson said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Oregon Hunters Association contributed money to help cover costs of the sampling, which runs $15 per animal and is done at a national laboratory in Iowa.

Oregon's native elk population numbers about 100,000, and there are anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million deer within its borders at any one time. In addition, the 15 commercial elk breeders in Oregon own about 1,000 elk.

Elk raised in Oregon are sold for breeding stock to out-of-state hunting ranches. They also can be slaughtered for consumption: The Oregon Legislature recently passed a law allowing the sale of elk meat from licensed elk farms in the state.

Mortenson said those involved in what he called the 'farmed elk industry' are particularly alarmed by CWD 'because they are very encouraged and optimistic that farming elk is a more profitable alternative to farming domestic livestock.'

Midwestern menace

CWD has been been diagnosed in 17 farmed elk herds in South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana and Colorado in the last couple of years; 16 of the herds remain under quarantine, and many animals have been destroyed to stop the spread of the disease.

It's also been found in farmed elk in Saskatchewan and in Alberta, Canada.

After wasting disease was found two months ago in one of 160 elk sent to slaughter from a farm north of Edmonton, Alberta, Canadian authorities ordered all 32 metric tons of the elk meat to be destroyed.

'Of the two main ways the disease could potentially come to Oregon, one is natural migration from areas where the disease is endemic,' Mortenson said. 'It's an awful long way for those deer and elk to come on over to Oregon; it's unlikely there will be natural migration of infected animals.'

The other possible way for the disease to come into Oregon, he said, would be with elk transported to an elk farm, but state laws set specific requirements for importing elk.

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