CWD found in private Olmsted Co. elk herd

St. Paul – An elk raised on a farm north of Rochester in Olmsted
County has tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

The discovery – the result of routine testing of slaughtered
cervids – marks the first time since 2006 that CWD has been found
in the state. The farm has been quarantined, state Board of Animal
Health officials said Monday.

The quarantine means no animals can come to or go from the farm,
called Elk Country U.S.A. The farm’s elk herd includes about 1,000
animals, said Paul Anderson, assistant director of the Board of
Animal Health.

The herd likely is the largest in the state. An investigation
into the source of the disease has begun and, historically, all of
the other animals on a farm where there’s a positive CWD test have
been killed, too, so their brain stems may be tested for the
disease.

However, the previous animals that have tested positive have
come from much smaller farms. Animal health officials haven’t
decided yet what to do with the remaining elk.

“The producers did just what they were supposed to do by getting
the animals tested. Unfortunately, we found the disease,” Anderson
said. “It’s sad for the herd’s owner because the eventual outcome
for the herd may be that all of these animals will have to be
euthanized.”

The animal that tested positive, a 7-year-old cow, was one of
about 200 that was sent to slaughter at the same time. The law
mandates testing of all farmed cervids that die or are slaughtered.
Every year, about 3,000 cervids – elk and white-tailed deer,
primarily, but also reindeer, red deer, sika deer, and fallow deer
– are tested.

CWD is a fatal brain and nervous system disease that’s caused by
an abnormally shaped protein called a prion, which can damage brain
and nerve tissue, according to the board. Animals infected with the
disease lose body weight and exhibit changes in behavior.

But by all outward signs, the animal was healthy, Anderson
said.

“The animal was in good shape and looked healthy and no one had
any reason to believe it was infected,” he said.

It’s unclear when the elk was infected, but likely sometime in
the last three years because the normal CWD incubation period is up
to about three years. The animal, born in 2001, lived its entire
life on the farm, Anderson said.

“It’s a concern for everyone because certainly if it is in our
farmed animals, it could be spread if these animals are moved from
one farm to another,” he said. “On a lot of different levels, we
are very concerned about it. It’s nothing that we expect to find on
any kind of a regular basis.”

Concerns for wild deer

The farm becomes the fourth to have had elk or deer test
positive for the disease since 2002. The others were in Aitkin,
Stearns, and Lac qui Parle counties.

The fences at the farm seem to be in good shape, and possible
contact between captive and wild animals likely would have been
minimal, Anderson said. The disease is spread by none-to-nose
contact between animals.

And while wild deer haven’t tested positive for the disease to
date – more than 30,000 have been tested since 2002 – wildlife
officials remain concerned about the possibility.

“That southeast part of the state is the area we are most
concerned about because it is closest to the existing Wisconsin CWD
problem in the wild deer population,” said Dave Schad, DNR Fish and
Wildlife Division director.

Last fall, the DNR tested 500 hunter-harvested deer along the
Wisconsin border between St. Croix State Park and Houston County,
according to Michelle Carstensen, DNR wildlife health program
coordinator.

None of those animals tested positive for the disease.

DNR officials are in the process of gathering information as
they decide how to respond.

“My guess is what we are going to do in this case is start with
some aerial work to see what deer numbers look like around this
facility before we make any decisions about surveillance that we
would do outside of the regular hunting season,” Carstensen
said.

After the first case of CWD was found in 2002, deer were culled
from the area around the farm. That’s unlikely this time around,
Schad said. He said the agency is looking at the farm and the
surveillance that’s been done in the immediate area.

“Based on that, we will decide if we need to do some additional
testing in that area this fall,” Schad said.

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