There will be no elk reintroduction in Missouri in the foreseeable future. The Missouri Conservation Commission today approved a recommendation suspending efforts to reintroduce elk to the state.
The Commission action is intended to safeguard the state's wildlife from diseases. Elk in some western states are infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), an illness that strikes the brains of elk and deer. There are no tests that can detect CWD in live animals and no cure for the disease, which has never been found in Missouri.
"An outbreak of chronic wasting disease could cause great harm to the deer herd, so it is imperative we do all we can to prevent its spread into the state," says Conservation Commission Chairman Randy Herzog. "Although small, there is a chance infected elk that show no symptoms of the disease could enter the state through a restoration project. We feel it would be unwise to take that risk."
The Missouri Department of Agriculture gave the Commission a brief presentation on chronic wasting disease and later applauded the Commission decision to halt elk reintroduction. "The Conservation Commission acted responsibly and with appropriate caution," says Lowell Mohler, Agriculture Director. "We need to closely scrutinize the importation of all animals into Missouri for disease implications."
CWD belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), or brain-wasting diseases. Other forms of TSEs are mad cow disease, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob which humans can contract. TSEs cause a progressive, fatal degeneration of the brain. The diseases are believed to result from mutated proteins called prions. There is no known link between CWD and the other TSEs, nor is there evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to humans or livestock.
State veterinarian John Hunt commended the Conservation Commission's decision. "There are too many unknowns about Chronic Wasting Disease at this time," said Hunt. "We shouldn't be overly alarmed because there's no proof it can be transmitted to other species besides cervids. But certainly the farmed elk business, big game preserves and, of course, our wild white-tailed deer population would be at risk if they're exposed to Chronic Wasting Disease."
Scientists are unsure of how CWD is transmitted. Evidence suggests that infected deer and elk may pass the disease through animal-to-animal contact or by contaminating food or water sources with saliva or waste.
The symptoms of CWD include progressive weight loss, excessive salivation, drooping ears and behavior changes such as listlessness or loss of an animal's natural fear of humans. Because those symptoms are typical of several diseases, animals displaying them must be tested to determine the cause of illness.
There is no evidence of CWD in Missouri, but its presence in wild deer and elk in some western states has conservation officials taking precautions. Missouri Department of Conservation Department (MDC) biologists are monitoring the deer herd for CWD. The MDC also will conduct random testing of deer harvested during the 2001 deer hunting season.
The surrounding states of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee have reintroduced wild elk in recent years. Ollie Torgerson, head of the Conservation Department's wildlife division, says Missouri won't follow suit until more is known about Chronic Wasting Disease. "We'll be monitoring how other states are handling the importation of animals. We have to protect our native white-tailed deer herd, which is a big part of outdoor recreation in Missouri. Bringing in deer or elk from other states could pose an unacceptable risk."
The MDC began an Elk Reintroduction Feasibility Study in 1999. It concluded that there was sufficient habitat in the state to support a wild elk population. In December 2000, the Commission heard the results of the feasibility study, but voted not to proceed with reintroduction. They asked staff to develop a reintroduction plan to address concerns about disease and property damage. In February 2001, the commission adopted a reintroduction scenario that included forming a citizen advisory committee. Today's decision suspends all activity regarding elk reintroduction.
The departments of Conservation and Agriculture will jointly address potential problems of privately owned captive deer and elk herds, of which there are approximately 75 in the state.