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To elk or not to elk

By the time this column hits the streets (11/2), the results from two public meetings regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s experimental elk release will be known. The park is proposing extending the experiment for two years and bringing in additional elk. The first meeting was Tuesday, Oct. 25, in Cherokee and the second was Thursday, Oct. 27, in Fletcher.

The public meetings sponsored by the park before the experimental release began in 2001 showed much public support for the effort. But that was before chronic wasting disease (CWD) appeared east of the Mississippi.

CWD is a contagious neurological disease that is fatal to cervids (the dear family). Animals infected become emaciated, exhibit abnormal behavior and ultimately die. Researchers believe the casual agent to be a prion or infectious protein. Its origin is unknown. It was first discovered in captive mule deer in Colorado in the 1960s.

The first known cases east of the Mississippi occurred in Wisconsin in 2002. It has now also been confirmed in New York, Illinois and West Virginia. The disease, which is fatal to elk, is similar to “mad cow” disease, but to date there is no evidence that domestic livestock or humans are at risk.

The scare is real and state wildlife agencies fear losing the deer that laid the golden egg. When you do a Google search on CWD and wild populations, you generally don’t get past the third paragraph before you find statements like these:

“Deer hunting in Wisconsin generates $32 million in license fees and delivers a $1.3 billion economic punch.”

“The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates that hunting of wild deer and elk pumped $599 million into Colorado’s economy last year.”

“In Oklahoma alone, 261,000 hunters, most of which are deer hunters, spent over $2.6 million on hunting expenditures according to a recent survey.”

It is hard to determine the validity of the scare. At present there is no sure way to detect CWD in live animals and infected animals may carry the disease for years before the wasting begins. Plus the true impact on wild populations is not known. Even in Colorado where CWD has been known to exist in the wild for 24 years, only about 5 percent of animals tested from known areas are infected, and the overall productivity of infected populations doesn’t appear to be affected. During the 2002-2003 hunting season the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) tested 91,636 samples from across the country, 302 proved positive for CWD.

Wildlife agencies don’t want to take the risk. Programs to kill as many deer as possible have been initiated in some states in areas where the disease has been found in hopes of limiting its spread. Many states including North Carolina have imposed bans and/or strict regulations on the importation and/or transportation of deer and elk.

In May 2002, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission asked the park to halt the importation of elk into Cataloochee while the commission studied the possible impacts of CWD. At that time the park made a point of stating that North Carolina had no jurisdiction over the national park, but they also said they felt the experimental release was going well and that there may be no need to bring in more animals.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, perhaps because the federal government, through APHIS, the Department of Interior and even the Park Service itself has become a partner with state agencies regarding the control of CWD. For whatever reason, the park now finds itself asking the state for permission to bring more elk to Cataloochee.

The elk herd in the park continues to hover at about 50 animals. The park points to increased black bear predation, natural mortality and an abnormal number (75 percent) of male calves as reasons for the stagnation. The park would like to bring in more elk – mainly females – to try to jump-start the reproduction rate. The park would also like to extend the study period for two more years to determine if reintroduction is truly feasible.

I hope public opinion is still behind the elk release, and I hope the park and the state can come to terms. A lot of time, money and effort has gone into the experimental elk release. It would be a shame to walk away from the project now. The park has been diligent in identifying disease-free sources for its elk. Land Between the Lakes and Elk Island are both monitored for CWD.

It is much more likely that CWD will find its way into North Carolina from some other source. In 2002 North Carolina had more than 190 facilities holding captive deer, elk and other animals in the deer family.


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