President Jack O. Walther told a Senate subcommittee that chronic wasting disease threatens the nation's deer and elk herds and that Congress should fund state surveillance programs to determine whether the disease exists within their borders.
"The extent of testing and surveillance that is needed now and for the foreseeable future exceeds resources available to state departments of natural resources and tribal organizations," Dr. Walther said. "Financial support from the federal government will be required to comprehensibly and effectively test wild elk and deer populations."
The AVMA president made his comments to the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water during an April 6 hearing on the Chronic Wasting Disease Financial Assistance Act (S. 1366).
Also testifying were representatives of the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Interior, state fish and wildlife agencies, and a nonprofit alliance of wildlife conservation organizations.
Subcommittee member Wayne Allard of Colorado introduced the bill last June. It would offer $20.5 million in grants to state wildlife agencies and American Indian tribal governments for the management and control of the disease in wild deer and elk herds.
"The states desperately need assistance and we have waited far long enough to provide them with it," said Allard, a veterinarian. He was referring to a congressional mandate for an as-of-yet nonexistent task force to create a uniformed approach to how state and federal agencies and tribes deal with the disease in wild and captive cervids.
First identified in Colorado in 1967, the disease has since spread to wild and captive deer and elk in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada have also reported CWD infections.
A transmissible spongiform encephalopathy of cervids, CWD is in the same disease family as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie. Little is known about the fatal neurologic illness, and researchers have yet to determine its origin or mode of transmission.
Subcommittee Chair Mike Crapo of Idaho observed that states where the disease has emerged face serious budgetary problems.
"Surveillance is costly and draws resources away from other wildlife management needs," Crapo said. "Public concerns about the human health risk may degrade hunters' confidence in areas where CWD occurs. This can have substantial economic implications for states where hunting and wildlife watching contribute significantly."
Allard noted that in his state of Colorado, funding for CWD research, monitoring, and eradication jumped from $700,000 to $4 million in just two years.
The AVMA supports passage of Allard's legislation and several other bills providing federal coordination and funds for CWD management (see JAVMA, Jan. 1, 2004).
During his testimony, Dr. Walther referred to an AVMA position statement on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The AVMA encourages enhanced surveillance, monitoring, and control programs for TSEs and governmental support for the development of rapid diagnostic tests and control measures.
Dr. Walther said one section of the Allard bill does require additional study, however. Language in that section assigns funding priority on the basis of a state's previous expenditures on CWD management and research. Although proactive states should be rewarded, Dr. Walther worries that states with fewer available resources will be inadvertently precluded from receiving grants.
"They may have been unable to fund surveillance programs and, therefore, have not been able to detect CWD in their state," he told the subcommittee. "These states should be given grants to support surveillance programs to determine whether CWD exists within their borders."
He added that, because the disease could affect deer and elk herds across the nation, Congress must see to it that states and tribal governments with the greatest need receive fair shares of federal funds.
"There's an awful lot that we don't know about this disease, quite frankly, and the potential for this to spread is great," Dr. Walther said.
For additional information about chronic wasting disease, visit the USDA Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/nahps/cwd/. To learn more about how the AVMA is supporting CWD legislation, contact Dr. Mark Lutschaunig of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division at (800) 321-1473, Ext. 3205, or mlutschaunigavma [dot] org.