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Published March 17, 2010, 10:49 PM

Chronic Wasting Disease Found in ND For First Time

By: Blake Nicholson, AP

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Chronic wasting disease has been found in North Dakota for the first time, in a mule deer killed by a hunter last fall in the south central part of the state, state officials said Wednesday.

State wildlife officials hold out hope that the disease, a fatal malady of the nervous system in members of the deer family, is not widespread in the state. Officials are mulling whether to make hunter deer sampling mandatory next season in the western Sioux County area, where the infected deer was found.

"At this point, with one positive, you go, 'OK, we need to sample really heavily in that area,'" said Greg Link, assistant wildlife chief for the state Game and Fish Department. "This is what we were prepared for. This is what we planned for. To get one hit, we just know we need to look harder."

North Dakota had been somewhat of an island when it came to CWD. The disease has been found in wild or captive deer and elk populations in 15 other states, mostly in the central U.S., and in two Canadian provinces.

Scientists have found no evidence that the disease can be transmitted naturally to people or livestock. More than 14,000 deer, elk and moose have tested negative for chronic wasting in the past eight years in North Dakota. Link said he does not worry that hunter participation might drop off now that the disease has been found.

"I think the other way around — they'll crank it up," he said.

He said there might be some drop-off in the number of out-of-state deer hunters coming to North Dakota — where the industry is valued at about $60 million annually — but he does not expect a big reduction because so many other states also have the disease.

Game and Fish has been sampling for CWD since 2002, when awareness of the disease was heightened by discoveries in several other states. North Dakota officials run tests when they get reports of sick animals, and the state has set up a volunteer program under which hunters submit deer heads for testing. One-third of the state is tested each year.

"We've been through the whole state a couple of times," Link said. "We hope that this is a fairly recent animal ... that hopefully it's not something that's been out there cooking for a while."

Game and Fish Department wildlife veterinarian Dan Grove said the hunter who reported the adult buck said the animal appeared sick when he shot it last fall. The animal was tested initially at a lab in Minnesota, and the positive result was verified by a federal lab in Iowa.

Officials can only speculate how the deer contracted the disease. North Dakota requires hunters who kill deer and elk in other states with CWD to leave everything but the meat behind and bars those who raise elk and deer on farms from importing animals from CWD states.

Link said it is possible that the infected deer found in North Dakota migrated from South Dakota, where the disease has already been found.

"Animals that can bounce back and forth on the borders, you really have no means to deal with that," he said. "That's why we have our monitoring out there."

Game and Fish does not have the resources to make the hunter deer sampling program mandatory statewide, Link said.

Link said one potential effect of the discovery of CWD in North Dakota is that other states might implement restrictions similar to the ones North Dakota has in place for hunters or ranchers bringing animals in from other CWD states.

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On the Net:

Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance: http://www.cwd-info.org/

North Dakota Game and Fish Department: http://gf.nd.gov

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