Q: I heard some kind of "mad cow" disease that affects deer and elk has devastated herds in Canada and the Midwest. Is this in Alaska? Could it affect moose and caribou?
A: Chronic wasting disease has killed elk and deer in the Lower 48 and Canada, and thousands more have been killed to curb its spread. Hunters and game managers are very concerned about the problem. There is no indication yet that this disease has occurred in Alaska, and no evidence at all that it affects moose or caribou.
As the name suggests, chronic wasting disease causes progressive weight loss, weakness and death in deer and elk. Saliva, urine and feces are thought to spread the disease. An infected animal shows no symptoms for 17 months - but once the deer or elk does begin wasting, it dies in just a few days or a few weeks.
Like mad cow disease, this is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by infectious rogue proteins that damage the brain and nervous system. These proteins, called prions, have not been found in meat or muscle tissue. Little is known about their origins, but they are not bacteria or viruses.
Chronic wasting disease was first recognized in a captive herd of mule deer in Colorado in 1967. By 2000 it was a full-blown problem in game farms in Saskatchewan, Alberta, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Colorado.
By far the greatest impact has been on game farms, where deer and elk are raised in captivity. In the 1990s elk farming was a growing industry in the United States and Canada and farmers were eyeing a potentially lucrative commercial market for elk meat. Alaska has 12 elk farms, with three in Delta Junction, and others in Kodiak, Homer, Palmer, Wasilla, Soldotna and near Portage Glacier.
The disease has devastated the elk-farming industry down south. A few years ago a pregnant cow elk was worth about $3,000, while today a farmer may be lucky to get $300.
Scientists and veterinarians think because captive animals are grouped in high numbers in restricted areas, the disease has a greater opportunity to infect. The density of the animals is a major factor. The disease is found in some wild populations in about a half-dozen states, but to a much lesser extent - perhaps 5 percent of the wild mule deer in Colorado and Wyoming may be affected. In contrast, as much as 90 percent of the captive elk on game farms down south are suspected to be infected.
Worse, game farmers have found that the disease ruins their farms. Because a protein is not alive, it can't be killed, and these prions are very hardy. So far, scientists have not found a way to decontaminate infected areas.
The transportation of domestic elk is not closely regulated or tracked, which is frustrating to veterinarians and biologists. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not have authority to regulate the captive elk industry, and the USDA, which issues permits for the international shipping of animals, continues to allow elk to be imported to Alaska from Canada. The Department of Environmental Conservation issues permits for the interstate transport of animals, including elk and reindeer, the only members of the deer family legal to farm in Alaska.
The elk farm in Kodiak received a shipment of animals last fall from the Yukon Territory. Although there is no indication of the disease in the Yukon at this time, it is possible those animals could have originally come from Saskatchewan or Alberta, according to Fish and Game veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen. Only two elk farmers in Alaska, including the one in Kodiak, have agreed to participate in a voluntary testing program of their animals suggested by DEC.
Alaska Fish and Game is keeping a watchful eye on the situation. Biologists will check deer killed by hunters in the areas around the game farms to confirm the disease has not spread to wild Alaska deer. The disease can't be detected in living animals, so scientists look at parts of the brain, tonsils and lymph nodes from deer carcasses to see if the disease is present in the tissue.
Wildlife managers and biologists down south have extensive monitoring programs to sample wild deer and elk taken by hunters. Twenty six states have banned the importation of elk and deer carcasses, and Fish and Game has a task force considering an import ban, among other options. It is safe and legal to ship mounted trophies, tanned hides and boned-out meat.
"We don't want to take any risk of bringing this into Alaska," said Beckmen.
Biologists are very interested in reports of any deer that appear ill although with Alaska's high number of predators, it is unlikely a sick animal would last very long. And there's no indication the ailment could affect predators since it doesn't jump species.
• Former Empire writer Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or to pose a question, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.