Sen. Bennet introduces legislation to combat a disease devastating deer and elk populations | CraigDailyPress.com

Sen. Bennet introduces legislation to combat a disease devastating deer and elk populations

Deepan Dutta/Summit Daily News

A mule deer buck in velvet hears something in the distance near Bailey, Colorado. Wildlife officials believe half of Colorado's deer population and a third of the elk population is infected with Chronic Wasting Disease, an always-fatal neurological disease.

For decades, Colorado's deer and elk populations have been under serious threat from a contagious, fatal neurological disease known as Chronic Wasting Disease. However, the epidemic has hit a critical point, as it is estimated that half the state's deer population and a third of the elk population is infected with the 100-percent fatal disease. The disease is also spreading in deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and other cervid populations in 24 other states and four Canadian provinces.

To finally make some headway in controlling the spread, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has joined U.S. Sen. John Barasso (R-WY) and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) to introduce a bipartisan bill authorizing deep study of the disease to find ways to control its spread and give state and local officials the information they need to combat it.

The disease has been studied by Colorado Parks & Wildlife officials since it first appeared in captive mule deer populations in research facilities near Fort Collins. The "prion disease" is part of the same class of diseases that include Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, more commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease."

Like Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting Disease is a result of the infection by a "misfolded" protein called a prion. The prions attack an infected animal's brain, creating tiny holes in brain tissue, like a sponge, which can be seen under a microscope. The disease progressively deteriorates mental and motor functions in infected animals, causing severe lethargy, confusion, and inability to maintain basic survival functions. Infected animals start losing weight, waste away, and eventually die.

Unlike Mad Cow, wasting disease is not currently known to spread to humans. Wildlife officials still urge hunters to not consume animals they suspect might have the disease.

What makes the disease particularly dangerous and difficult to control is how easily transmissible it is. The disease can spread between animals through all bodily fluids and tissue and can even be transmitted into the environment. Once the infected fluid or tissue gets into the soil, it can remain contagious for years and can even be transmitted through blades of grass growing from infected soil. As the disease is not transmitted through bacteria or viruses, there is no vaccine against it, nor is there currently any cure.

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As part of its adaptive management program to stop the spread of the disease, CPW has also instituted mandatory testing this year in most game units across Colorado. Buck hunters in units known to have herds with the disease are now required to submit their deer heads to the agency to test brain tissue for the disease. Voluntary testing — available for a $25 fee — is also encouraged in game units outside mandatory testing.

The bill introduced by Bennet, the "Chronic Wasting Disease Transmission in Cervidae Study Act," will require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct a special resource study to better understand the mechanism of the disease, how and where it is most actively spreading, and what kind of uniform information can be given to hunters to help control its spread.

"The deer and elk herds affected by Chronic Wasting Disease are a critical part of Colorado's wildlife heritage and economy," Bennet said in a news release. "We need to learn more about containing (the disease), and this bipartisan legislation will provide the information state wildlife professionals need to align their work and prevent further spread."

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Ron Johnson (R-WI), John Thune (R-SD), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) co-sponsored the legislation.