Worry about disease casts shadow over deer season

Monday, November 5, 2001

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- With the fall firearms about to begin, state officials are assuring hunters that the deer herd -- and humans and cattle -- are safe from a disease that has been killing elk in Colorado this year.

That doesn't mean the Missouri departments of agriculture and conservation aren't worried about the potential for an outbreak of chronic wasting disease, which was brought to the state by elk imported from Colorado.

The concern led the state to institute a ban this week on bringing in elk from states where chronic wasting disease has been identified. And tests will be run to check for the disease in deer killed during the firearms hunting season, which begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 20.

Missouri Department of Conservation biologists had already planned to sample for chronic wasting disease in the brains of deer shot during the hunt.

In the last couple of weeks, they've also conferred with state Department of Agriculture employees searching for domestic elk sent to Missouri more than a year ago from a Colorado ranch where animals suspected of carrying the disease are being destroyed.

$800 million industry

Department of Conservation director Jerry Conley said the disease has not been found in Missouri. But he said the potential of the disease frightens him. There's too much to lose, both in terms of the estimated $800 million that deer hunting and wildlife watching generate each year in Missouri and in hunting opportunities if the disease hits the state, he said.

"It sends a chill down your spine, to think about how many people would be affected," he said.

While conservation department officials are watching for signs of the disease in deer, the Missouri Department of Agriculture is tracing 26 elk from Colorado that came from a ranch where the disease has been found.

Ollie Torgerson, Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife division chief, said the agriculture department has done its job finding elk that ended up in the state, but he fears what might happen if chronic wasting disease hits a commercial ranch.

"Somehow, we have to keep wild animals from getting into that facility," he said.

That includes the possibility that wild deer around an infected area would have to be destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading, he said. But state agencies are acting to keep that from happening.

On Friday, acting state veterinarian Dr. David Hobson announced that deer, elk and related animals sent from states where chronic wasting disease has been found won't be allowed into Missouri.

Elk ranchers who own around 2,000 elk in the state and livestock auctions will be notified of the rule, he said.

Although Colorado agriculture officials originally said 46 elk were shipped to Missouri, only 26 actually came to the state, Hobson said. Of those, 13 remained in Missouri and, of those, four are unaccounted for, he said. The elk will be destroyed.

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