Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 10, 2003

Local woman helps get stricter CWD testing guidelines

By Julie Yurek

Identifying and tracking elk and deer afflicted with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) became easier, thanks to Brenda Hartkopf of Howard Lake.

She is a member of the Minnesota CWD Task Force that was created in August 2002, shortly before the first case of CWD was found in the state. She is also the executive secretary in the Minnesota Elk Breeders organization.

The task force went to the state legislature this year and was able to make it mandatory to test for CWD and to register elk and deer producers with the Board of Animal Health (BAH).

More than 330 elk were euthanized and tested in the state since the investigation began in August 2002. The BAH recently finished its investigation for the disease.

CWD was discovered in a single captive elk in Aitkin County, and also Stearns County, where the Aitkin elk was purchased. Another infected elk was located in Wisconsin. It too came from the Stearns farm, Hartkopf said.

When CWD was found in the state, elk and deer farmers had to trace their records back five years, Hartkopf said.

No elk farms in the area were found to have the disease.

Organizations in the task force include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Department of Health, USDA, Minnesota Elk Breeders, Minnesota Deer Breeders, and Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Mandatory testing is testing every animal that dies after the age of 16 months or is slaughtered, Hartkopf said.

For example, the Hartkopfs have slaughtered about 45 of their animals, all of which were tested.

The samples can either be taken to the University of Minnesota personally where it is done for free, or for a fee, it can be taken to a veterinarian for testing, she said.

They usually take it to the U of M, she added.

However, before the university offered testing, the Hartkopfs spent a total of about $1,200 for testing in the last five years.

There are also state inspected slaughterhouses that can take a sample for no charge. But a federal slaughterhouse won't take a sample, she said.

In recent years, more options for samples and testing have become available, she said.

"I think mandatory testing is really good," she said. "It's a good program because it can catch the disease early."

Before mandatory testing, it was on a volunteer basis because there wasn't compensation if a herd was infected, she said.

Even with voluntary testing, about 70 percent of elk producers were testing, Hartkopf said. However, there weren't nearly as many deer producers testing, she added.

As for registering one's herd, Hartkopf feels it puts everyone on the same level. "It's better security and more safety nets," she said.

The BAH receives a copy of all animal movement an owner makes. For example, activities such as selling an animal or loaning a bull for breeding purposes require documentation that that animal was moved from one location to another, Hartkopf said.

"It's more work on our part, but it's important. We must ensure safety," she said.

The Hartkopfs were already registered with the BAH before it became mandatory.

A debilitating disease

There is no live testing for the disease yet, so animals must be euthanized in order to get a sample for testing, she said.

The disease has not been detected in the state's wild deer population, according to the DNR web site, www.dnr.state.mn.us.

CWD is a contagious fatal disease primarily found in the deer and elk population. Research suggests that humans, cattle, and other domestic livestock are resistant to natural transmission. There have not been any reported cases of human infection, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance web site, www.cwd-info.org.

It is a neurological disease that produces small lesions in brains of the infected animal. The disease is characterized by loss of body condition, behavioral abnormalities, and death.

CWD is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep.

Typical signs of the disease include drooping head or ears, poor body condition, tremors, stumbling, increased salivation, difficulty swallowing, or excessive thirst or urination, according to the DNR.

The disease was first discovered in Colorado and Wyoming, and has since been detected in wild or captive animals in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, Wisconsin, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Canada.

The DNR asked hunters to submit samples for testing last year. It will begin another year of intensive testing this hunting season.

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