House Panel Targets Chronic Wasting Disease

By J.R. Pegg

June 19, 2003 (ENS) - A panel of experts told a House subcommittee today that scientists still do not know how chronic wasting disease is transmitted, how many of the nation's wild and captive deer and elk may be infected, or how the spread of the disease can be stopped. The disease has been found in wild deer or elk within eight states and although there is no evidence that the disease poses any threat to humans or livestock, federal and state officials are scrambling to assure a wary public.

"We do not understand some pretty fundamental things about the disease," said U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Director Charles Groat at today's House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forests Health hearing.

And amid all the uncertainty around chronic wasting disease (CWD), one point of clarity is that Congress - in particular members from Colorado and Wisconsin where the disease is a hot button issue - is keen to do something about it.

"It is a significant and growing problem in a growing number of states from a wildlife management perspective and an economic perspective," said Representative Mark Green, a Wisconsin Republican.

Green said CWD presents "a $1 billion impact to the state of Wisconsin," and fellow Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind, a Democrat, said the state saw a 15 percent decline in hunters because of "misinformation" about the risks to humans from the disease. deer

Several states worry that fear over chronic wasting disease is having an economic impact. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
"It is critically important that we get our arms around this problem," Green said.

But that is much easier said than done.

First identified in captive deer in Colorado in 1967, CWD was determined to be a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) in 1978. TSE diseases - which include bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease, scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, which affects humans - are believed to be caused by little known proteins called prions.

The disease has been identified in free-ranging deer or elk in eight states and in captive deer or elk in 14 states.

There is no live test for CWD, so scientists, wildlife management officials and agriculture officials who are responsible for captive herds, must rely on testing of dead animals to determine the endemic area for the disease.

Public officials can not tell the public how the disease is spreading, how fast it may be spreading or how widespread it may be, leaving a huge gap of uncertainty for the public to mull over and worry about.

The best way to bridge that gap, according to the experts at today's panel, is to learn more about CWD and further identify which populations of wild or captive deer and elk - collectively known as cervids - contain infected individuals.

But this takes money, and states say they need more federal help.

"Our needs are extensive and beyond the ability of the state to fully fund," Colorado Division of Wildlife Director Russell George told the subcommittee.

"Right now we are moving other resources around and are not doing things we would otherwise do or should do in managing wildlife because we are using our resources to focus on this very important task," George explained. "We need you to get it too us quickly and with not a lot of strings attached."

That is what the bill under discussion at today' s hearing - the "Chronic Wasting Disease Support for States Act of 2003" - aims to do. While the witnesses all welcomed the additional funding in the bill for states, which totals some $14 million, some are not sure several of the provisions in the legislation are necessary. elk

Some wild elk have been found to be stricken with chronic wasting disease. (Photo by Jim Leupold courtesy FWS)
"Even though this bill has good intent, much of what is required in this bill is already being done," said Bobby Acord, Administrator of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The bill directs APHIS to develop a surveillance and monitoring program to identify the rate of infection in captive herds, the cause and extent of the disease and the potential reservoirs of infection and vectors promoting the spread of the disease. In addition, it urges APHIS to upgrade federal facilities and certified laboratories to process CWD tests.

Acord says the agency is already doing both of these things and is currently distributing $4 million in state grants for CWD programs.

And Acord also touched on a fundamental challenge of government jurisdiction at play in efforts to deal with CWD, as agriculture departments have control of programs to address captive herds, while wildlife management agencies oversee wild populations.

The APHIS Administrator told the subcommittee that he is concerned with the bill's provision that directs the Secretary of Interior, through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to establish a national database for chronic wasting disease related information, including surveillance and monitoring data for both wild and captive herds.

"The Agriculture Department is the lead department for livestock diseases and we do not believe a database for livestock should lie at Interior," Acord said.

The database should be developed "cooperatively with the Agriculture Department," added Groat, who also suggested that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not the USGS, be responsible for the bill's $10 million in grant money to be doled out to help states develop and implement chronic wasting disease management strategies.

In addition to the $10 million through the Interior Department, the bill would provide states with funds from a $4 million pool of money to be doled out by the Agriculture Department for research and education.

Groat says USGS is committed to providing technical assistance to states and participating in collaborative research, and noted his agency's recent funding of a collaborative effort with the state of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin to study CWD.

States with a history of dealing with the disease should be at the forefront of the research programs, George said, because they have the most experience with the disease and can identify issues and funnel solutions to other states.

"What states like Colorado really need from the federal government are additional resources, not new programs or institutions," George told the subcommittee.

The key to dealing with CWD is to test sufficiently to know everywhere it exists, he explained, adding that Colorado has increased statewide testing from 5,000 to 27,000, with a goal of 40,000. deerjumping

Scientists do not know how chronic wasting disease is transmitted and this is a huge hurdle for efforts to manage wild and captive populations. (Photo by Phillip White courtesy FWS)

Increased testing is the only way to track CWD, George explained, because findings in individual herds or populations in one geographical area can not be extrapolated beyond those groups.

Better tests have reduced the turn around time for results from six months to two weeks, George said, with further improvements in the pipeline.

Gary Taylor, the legislative director of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said his organization supports the bill, but says it is concerned about the need to engage other agencies, in particular the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The FDA has proposed guidance for the rendering industry regarding the use of material from deer and elk in animal feed, Taylor said, but as written it "hinders animal health and wildlife management agency efforts to identify new areas where the disease occurs."

The guidance could trigger a recall of feed or feed ingredients containing material from a CWD positive animal, a move that Taylor says "promotes avoidance of CWD testing."

"It discourages sportsmen from having animals tested because rendering facilities might turn them down," Taylor said.

Early detection is the key to grabbing hold of the range of CWD, Taylor said, and this could undermine the cooperation among hunters, hunters, meat processors, taxidermists and renderers.

Draft EPA recommendations requiring standards and permits of waste water from CWD sampling labs would have a similar effect, Taylor said, and would "impede our ability to track the disease."