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Paynesville Press - September 11, 2002

CWD discovered in Minnesota

By Michael Jacobson

It may seem that Jim Kotschevar has more reason than most to worry about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), the disease that afflicts deer and elk which was recently discovered for the first time in Minnesota.

Kotschevar, you see, has a herd of 140 elk on a farm a couple miles north of St. Martin. But as treasurer of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, Kotschevar has been aware of the disease for many years.

Kotchevar's elk herd So while the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) starts to hunt wild deer in a nine-square-mile area around the farm in Aitkin County where CWD was discovered in the state and while two elk farms in Stearns County are quarantined, as well as the farm in Aitkin County, Kotschevar is confident that his herd is safe. Kotschevar has had his herd enrolled in the Minnesota Board of Animal Health's voluntary CWD program since 1998, and he has a lot of faith in the Board of Animal Health (BAH).

CWD originally was detected in deer at a research facility in Colorado in the 1960s. It was found on a farm in elk in South Dakota in 1997 and has now been found in Minnesota on an Aitkin County elk farm.

A silver lining in the discovery of CWD in Minnesota, as Kotschevar sees it, will be the BAH getting jurisdiction over all domestic elk and deer herds and making their CWD program mandatory. "I can't give enough credit to the Board of Animal Health," he said. "They've just done a super job."

For the testing program - through which Kotschevar has three-year CWD-free status - anytime that he brings an animal to slaughter it must be tested for CWD. Anytime that an animal dies on the farm, it must be tested.

Rigorous testing to be as sure as he can that his farm is CWD-free is important to Kotschevar. "I want to do that," he explained, "because if I sell meat to you, I want to say, 'This is CWD-free.' "

Kotschevar has a closed herd, with no additions to the herd from the outside except for breeding through artificial insemination, which he considers 99.9 percent safe. Right now, unfortunately, the only tests for CWD can only be done after an animal is dead, so there's no way to test the prevalence of the disease in the wild or in herds without killing the animals, at least until a live test is developed. Kotschevar hopes that the recent interest in CWD will help a live-animal test be developed in the next six months to a year.

The lack of a live-animal test is why the DNR is shooting wild deer in Aitkin County to test for the presence of the disease in the wild.

CWD, according to the USDA's Veterinary Services, was first recognized in mule deer at a research facility in northern Colorado. In the mid-1980s, it was identified in the wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, areas where it is considered to be endemic.

It was identified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) in 1978, according to the USDA. How the disease infects is unknown, as is how it transmits, though it is believed to be from animal to animal.

"What triggers this, we don't understand. How it's transmitted, we don't know. There's strong evidence that it's transmitted by physical contact: saliva, feces, etc.," said Kotschevar.

Officials stress that there's no evidence that CWD is found in the venison or elk meat nor that the disease can be transmitted either to cattle or to humans.

Surveillance of CWD in farmed elk began in 1997, according to the USDA, and the first case on an elk farm was discovered that same year. Currently, CWD has been identified in farmed elk in Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Canada, according to the DNR.

It has also been found in wild deer in Wisconsin, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Canada, according to the DNR.

Kotchevar's elk herd Kotschevar finds some comfort in the history of the disease, which he believes runs its course in the wild and can be controlled on farms. "The areas I'm concerned with are the areas where we have an overpopulation of deer," he said. "It seems that Mother Nature has a way to deal with these things."

He is also confident in the effort that government, private associations, industry, hunters, and the general public can make to combat the disease. "We're turning every rock over to learn about this disease: How is it transmitted? How can it be contained?" said Kotschevar.

Kotschevar used to hunt elk out west and was entranced by the "majesty" of the animal to start raising them. In the mid-1990s, he traded his gun for a camera, going on his last elk hunting trip and starting to raise elk on his 300-acre farm. (For Kotschevar, who was raised on a dairy farm near Farming and who owns a fabricating business in Paynesville, raising elk was his way to get back to farming.)

A number of markets exist for products from an elk herd. The velvet from the antlers can be sold overseas, calves can be sold as breeding stock, older bulls can be sold to hunting ranches as trophy animals, and elk can be butchered for meat, their hides, and their two ivory teeth.

The industry of elk raising is still developing, said Kotschevar.

To thwart the possible spread of CWD, the DNR is recommending that the public not feed deer this winter and not use mineral blocks. The thinking is that the contact between animals will help the spread of the disease.

Kotschevar isn't so sure that this will work. "Animals naturally congregate in the winter anyway," he noted. "The tougher the winter, the more they group together."

He argues that feeding where deer are really struggling should still be alright, and that the real problem with feeding is that many people do it for the wrong reason: as recreation to spot deer rather than to help the deer through rough winters.

So deer hunting this fall in Minnesota is necessary, in Kotschevar's mind, especially to reduce the deer population in areas where they are overabundant, and where the risk of spreading CWD is therefore the greatest.

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends the following to safely consume venison or elk this season: do not eat meat from any deer that looks or acts ill; do not eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, or lymph nodes of any deer; field dress the animal properly - minimize handling of the brain or spinal tissues, wear sturdy rubber gloves, and wash hands and instruments thoroughly when done.

(There is no evidence, the health department and the DNR stress, that CWD can be transmitted to humans.)

In addition, the DNR urges hunters to avoid bringing back whole carcasses from animals harvested in other states. The safest way to transport game is to bring back cut and wrapped meat, boneless meat, hides, and antlers or cleaned skull plates.

Signs of CWD in animals, according to the DNR, include: starvation and dehydration; excessive salivation; stumbling weakness, loss of coordination, or tremors; drooping head or ears; excessively rough or dull coat; and loss of fear in humans. Hunters should not shoot a deer they suspect might be ill. Instead, the DNR recommends that hunters notify either a local conservation officer or report their sighting to a DNR wildlife office.

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