FAIRBANKS - Wildlife biologists and veterinarians are not worried about chronic wasting disease spreading to deer, moose and caribou in Alaska, but they aren't taking any chances with the deadly disorder threatening deer and elk populations in the Lower 48.
The state has been informally testing moose for the past two years. The state Department of Fish and Game will begin collecting heads of Sitka black-tailed deer killed by hunters in Southeast next year as part of a plan to ensure that chronic wasting disease has not migrated north.
"We don't think we have it but we want to be ready if it does appear," said wildlife veterinarian Kimberly Beckman. "It's on everybody's mind: What's Fish and Game going to do about CWD? A lot of people have asked me about it."
Discovered in Colorado in 1967, CWD is a rare neurological disease that's been found in a small percentage of deer and elk in portions of 10 states and two Canadian provinces. There is no evidence that CWD is transmittable to humans or other types of animals but many experts warn against eating meat from areas where infected deer have been found.
CWD infects an animal's brain and causes the animal to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die. It is a cousin to mad cow disease, which has killed 135 Britons and untold cattle since 1996.
Scientists believe chronic wasting disease can spread among deer through contact with saliva, feces or urine, but they do not know how. The most likely way CWD would be transmitted to Alaska is through imported elk, experts said.
While there are about a dozen elk farms in Alaska, there is a moratorium on importing elk into Alaska, said state veterinarian Bert Gore of the Division of Environmental Health. The moratorium was instituted over the summer in response to the threat of CWD.
Elk farmers are not required to test animals that die or are slaughtered. Gore has talked to Alaska elk farmers about developing a monitoring program for CWD in their herds "but nobody has jumped up and volunteered yet," he said.
Because it has a 17-month incubation period, an animal can be infected with CWD for almost two years before it shows any sign of the disease. Beckman would like to make CWD testing mandatory for any elk that is over 18 months old and is slaughtered or dies. Since Fish and Game does not regulate elk farms anymore, it's hard to tell what is going on, she said.
Gore has tested only two elk from elk farms and both tested negative for CWD.
As part of an informal study, Gore has tested the brains of about 20 moose over the past two years that were killed by hunters or vehicles in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. All tested negative for CWD, he said.
No caribou or reindeer have been tested, he said.
"We are a bit concerned about it, but as we learn more about it we're less concerned," said Pat Valkenburg, a state caribou biologist.
Hunters kill about 25,000 Sitka black-tailed deer and 250 elk in Alaska each year, almost all in Southeast. Since nearly all of Alaska's deer and elk are on islands, it makes the chance of CWD showing up in those herds even more remote, Valkenburg said.