Mad Cow Disease in America


One day it will start, and there's not a thing we can do to stop it.

Brain diseases from cows passed on to humans.

The first spark might be growing out west, and the Sunday 3/31/2002 Denver, Colorado Post article sent shivers up the spines of those people employed by America's dairy and meat industries.

They call it chronic wasting disease, but just like a rose by any other name is still a rose, this neural disease turns brains into sponges, and has the potential to turn meat eaters and milk drinkers into vegans faster than you can say: 'bovine spongiform encephalitis.'

Colorado Governor Bill Owens is ready to declare a state of emergency. Cattlemen have found a wild mule deer infected with "Mad Elk Disease," and this animal has possibly infected an entire cattle farm. Containment might be the order for today and tomorrow, but this creature is one hundred miles away from the last mammal identified with the brain-destroying disease.

The director of Colorado''s Division of Wildlife, Russell George, had this comment: "This is our worst nightmare."

One cattle operator running a 53,000 acre ranch, said: "It could be devastating not only to our area but to the whole state."

The infected ranch has been quarantined by the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The disease has spread to the Nebraska panhandle, and it's just a matter of time before these wild elk and mule deer return to the woods, and emerge from the woods again into neighboring Iowa. From there, could Wisconsin be next?

Nature always finds a way.

Mad Cow Disease is a tragedy waiting to happen, and happen it will. That is a given. Many Americans will eat the infected meat and drink the infected milk long before they learn that they have been exposed to internal infectious ticking time bombs called prions. By that time, for them, it will be too late.

Robert Cohen

Disease of deer and elk spreads

CWD now a threat to West Slope herds

By Theo Stein
Denver Post Environment Writer

Sunday, March 31, 2002 - The nightmare scenario feared by state officials came true Friday with news that a fatal brain disease of deer and elk has jumped the Continental Divide to the game-rich Western Slope.

If unchecked, the outbreak of chronic wasting disease could pose a devastating threat not only to teeming herds of deer and elk but also to the hunting-dependent economies of countless small towns throughout the western part of the state.

Gov. Bill Owens and members of his Cabinet hurriedly called a news conference Friday to announce that a wild mule deer trapped inside an elk farm in northwestern Colorado had tested positive for CWD - 100 miles farther west than the disease had been thought to exist.

Two other deer shot inside an 1,800-acre pen at the elk farm - the Motherwell Ranch southeast of Craig - were suspected of having the disease after preliminary tests were performed Thursday by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Owens said the state would act swiftly to protect the deer herds, which he said are an irreplaceable part of Colorado's natural heritage - and its economy. Each year, hunters and visitors attracted by the state's wildlife account for $3 billion of the state's $10 billion tourism economy.

"The most aggressive policy will be the one we're going to follow," Owens said.

Chronic wasting disease, which is related to mad cow disease and sheep scrapie, destroys of brains of deer and elk, causing the animals to grow thin and die. There has been no evidence that CWD can infect humans, but public health officials advise caution when handling potentially infected animals.

Starting Monday, wildlife managers will begin killing 300 deer within a 5-mile radius of the 6,000-acre ranch, where paying guests can shoot a trophy bull elk or fish for trout in a nearby lake or the Williams Fork River. Brains and tonsils from the animals will be tested for the aberrant prion protein researchers believe causes the disease. Biologists hope the survey will show that the cases represent a local flare-up, rather than a wider epidemic that years of sampling western game herds had missed. In 1999, the heads of more than 400 deer harvested by hunters in the general area all tested negative for the malady.

"This is our worst nightmare," said Russell George, director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, whose agency depends on hunter license fees for its operating budget. "But there's a lot we don't know at this point. So we're just going to take it one step at a time."

Late-season snows will make the already unpleasant work more difficult, George said.

Dean Visintainer, a rancher who owns more than 53,000 acres in Moffat County within 40 miles of the infected ranch, says he's worried.

"It could be devastating not only to our area but to the whole state," said Visintainer, who like many ranchers in northwestern Colorado gets a sizable chunk of his income from charging hunting fees.

Officials were at a loss to explain how the disease suddenly appeared 100 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, which was thought to be the westernmost edge of its extent.

CWD infects up to 15 percent of deer and 1 percent of elk in a 15,000-square-mile "endemic" area of northeastern Colorado, southern Wyoming and the Nebraska Panhandle.

The deer near Craig were trapped inside the pen when the owner erected the fencing last summer to create a hunting preserve. The pen is adjacent to one of the oldest elk ranches in Colorado, wildlife officials said.

State policy prohibits the mingling of wild game and domestic animals because of the risk of spreading disease. Hunters sanctioned by the state removed 300 deer and 30 elk from the pen last fall. About half the deer have been tested so far, and the three infected animals were among that group.

The state Department of Agriculture immediately clamped a quarantine on the ranch and its 100 captive elk. Earlier this month, the state killed 1,500 elk on nine other ranches to control the disease.

State Agriculture Department spokeswoman Linh Truong said that since a change in ownership, the company that runs the Craig ranch has complied with Colorado's mandatory CWD surveillance program by submitting the head of every elk that died or was shot for testing. None of the tests indicated a problem, she said.

Mike Miller, the Colorado wildlife agency's veterinarian, said there were only a few ways CWD could have gotten to Motherwell: It could have existed unnoticed in wild herds, hopped a ride on a captive elk, or arisen spontaneously for some unknown reason, as some researchers think it did in northeastern Colorado.

"Maybe in this case we've caught it early enough that we can eliminate the problem altogether," Miller said. The Colorado Elk Breeders Association said the fact that the ranch owner had introduced elk to the new pen only this summer suggests the long-incubating disease had already been present in wild deer.

Officials with Western States Outdoors, the company that operates Motherwell Ranch and a larger ranch near Angel Fire, N.M., were not immediately available for comment.

Owens said he was convening a task force of biologists, agriculture officials and animal-health experts to help coordinate the state's response. He said he would talk with other Western governors about a regional CWD control program.

"This is very disturbing news," Owens said. "The future of our deer herds may depend on how well we react to this development."

Until 1996, chronic wasting disease was thought to be limited to wild deer in northeastern Colorado. But since the first ranched elk was diagnosed with CWD in Saskatchewan in 1996, 59 captive elk herds have been infected in South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as in Alberta and South Korea. CWD has recently been found in wild deer in South Dakota, the northern Nebraska Panhandle and Wisconsin.

Denver Post staff writer Nancy Lofholm contributed to this report.