Colorado senators back bill to aid fight against chronic wasting disease
A bill to help states better understand and stop the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer, elk, and moose is making its way through Congress with the support of two Colorado senators.
“Transmission of chronic wasting disease among deer and elk herds is a critical issue, threatening parts of Colorado’s outdoor economy and way of life,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) wrote in a February news release.
He has joined Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) to reintroduce the Chronic Wasting Disease Transmission in Cervidae Study Act — described as bipartisan legislation to increase wildlife managers’ ability to keep wildlife healthy.
CWD belongs to a family of rare, progressive neurodegenerative disorders called prion diseases — transmissible spongiform encephalopathies — that affect both humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the CDC, CWD is caused by transmissible pathogens that induce abnormal folding of specific normal cellular proteins. These abnormally folded proteins, called prions, are found most abundantly in the brain. The abnormal folding leads to brain damage, which, in later stages, causes weight loss and wasting. The disease is almost always fatal.
It’s similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy — more commonly known as mad cow disease — a neurodegenerative disease of cattle, which, when spread to humans, can result in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare condition that ultimately leads to dementia and death.
The similarity of CWD and mad cow disease has understandably raised concerns about the potential for CWD to be transmitted to humans. But to date, the CDC reports, there have been no reported cases of CWD infections in humans.
“CWD has reared its ugly head again and is now a real issue nationwide,” said Moffat County Commissioner Don Cook in 2018. Cook is part of a state advisory group tasked with bringing ideas and public support to wildlife managers.
In January, reports of a “zombie deer disease” arose after Dr. Michael Osterholm — director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an expert on infectious diseases — used the phase when he asked Minnesota state lawmakers for some $2 million to help fund his research into a new, faster test for CWD.
“I do believe that it is not a matter of if, but when, CWD crosses to humans,” Osterholm said in January.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife officials consider the sensationalizing of such a serious disease “unfortunate.”
“It is misleading and inappropriate…,” said CPW spokesperson Mike Porras. “An infected animal may not show symptoms from between two to four years after infection. Not quite the scenario the headline would imply.”
CWD can affect both wild and domestic herds of deer and elk, as well as moose. According to Bennet’s office, it is currently found in animals in 26 states and several Canadian provinces. However, state recommendations for preventing the spread of the disease vary. In Colorado, wildlife officials have instituted mandatory testing of deer in some areas and have asked hunters to voluntarily submit deer for sampling in other areas to help track the spread of the disease.
“This bill would provide state wildlife professionals with the information they need to standardize their work, improve CWD management, and prevent further spread across the country,” Bennet said.
The legislation addresses the needs identified by state agencies through the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The bill requires the USDA and Interior secretaries to enter an arrangement with the National Academies of Sciences to review current data and best management practices from federal and state agencies about the following:
• Pathways and mechanisms for CWD transmission.
• Areas at risk and geographical patterns of CWD transmission.
• Gaps in current scientific knowledge about transmission to prioritize research to address gaps.
When completed, the study would give state wildlife agencies and wildlife experts information to conduct targeted research on how the disease is transmitted, determine which areas are most at risk, and develop consistent advice for hunters to prevent further spread.
“The NAS study on chronic wasting disease transmission as proposed by Senator Bennet is a much-needed step to help state wildlife agencies better protect our nation’s big game populations against the spread and negative effects of chronic wasting disease,” Jeff Ver Steeg, acting director of Colorado Parks & Wildlife, wrote in a news release.
CPW Terrestrial Section Manager Craig McLaughlin concluded in 2018: “About half of Colorado’s deer herd and about a third of Colorado’s elk herd are infected.”
The rate of infection varies widely, from as low as one in 100 to as great as one in five. Sampling research conducted before the 2018 hunting season showed an increased prevalence of CWD in some areas of Northwest Colorado, from about 1 to 2 percent in early 2002 through 2004 to an average of 15 percent in 2017.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) is also backing the bill, joining a long list of co-sponsors representing both parties. The bill has also gained support from sportsman and conservation organizations, including Muley Fanatics Foundation, Boone and Crockett Club, The Wilderness Society, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the National Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and others.
“By understanding how chronic wasting disease spreads, we can begin to eradicate it and protect our hunting heritage and economy,” Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, wrote in in a February statement. “This bipartisan legislation will bring the Departments of Interior and Agriculture together to ensure healthy wildlife. Sportsmen and women appreciate the leadership of Senators Barrasso, Jones, and Bennet to protect the deer herds that are vital to our way of life.”
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1795 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.