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Federal Lawmakers Try To Tackle Chronic Wasting Disease In Western Deer, Elk, Moose

Warren Brown
Chronic wasting disease affects cervids, a group of animals that includes deer, elk, and moose.

Senators from across the country and on both sides of the aisle have introduced a bill to tackle a problematic illness of deer, elk and moose.

It's calledchronic wasting disease. Like so-called "mad cow," it’s a prion disease, meaning that it is not caused by viruses or bacteria, but instead by aberrant proteins in the nervous system.

Unlike mad cow, there is no strong evidence that it can affect human health. However,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies in monkeys and mice "raise the concern that CWD may pose a risk to people and suggest that it is important to prevent human exposures to CWD."

Thebipartisan bill, which senators Cory Gardner (R-CO), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and John Barrasso (R-WY) have signed on to, would require the departments of agriculture and interior to pay the National Academies of Sciences to figure out how the disease moves between animals, and how to keep it from spreading further. A report would also identify current gaps in scientific understanding of the illness.

"Chronic wasting disease threatens the iconic deer, elk and moose herds that roam our state. It's a threat to our Western heritage, but it's not just a Western problem," saidSen. John Barrasso of Wyoming. "Unchecked, this disease could truly be catastrophic for wildlife and local economies."

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a lobbying group that represents hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations, is one of the organizations that supports the bill.

"Chronic wasting disease threatens America’s hunting tradition," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the partnership, ina statement. "This legislation will provide solid scientific data so we can attack this disease head-on and protect deer herds across our nation."

Chronic wasting disease was initially recognized in Colorado in the 1960s. Now, CWD is known to infect animals in at least 26 states and parts of Canada. Idaho is the only state in our region that has not reported any cases. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.