Friday, February 7, 2014

Bill would reduce testing at elk farms

Hunters, environmentalists raise concerns about wasting disease

Express Staff Writer

Wild elk in some parts of the Rockies have suffered from chronic wasting disease, a contagious disease that attacks the brains of elk, deer and moose. Express file photo

Proposed legislation that would reduce the incidence of inspections for disease at commercial elk-raising operations in Idaho has met with opposition from some hunters and environmentalists who claim the change could expose wild elk to chronic wasting disease.
    House Bill 431 is scheduled to be voted on by the state House of Representatives as early as today, Feb. 7.
    David Miller, president of the Idaho Elk Breeders Association, said the bill’s purpose is to put the State Department of Agriculture’s testing program on solid financial footing and to reduce inspection costs for an industry functioning on a thin profit margin.
    “There’s got to be a give and take somewhere or there’s no money in it and no one will do it,” he said.
    According to the State Department of Agriculture, there are 57 elk ranchers in Idaho, raising about 3,700 animals.
    Chronic wasting disease is a contagious disease that attacks the brains of elk, deer and moose. The disorder is always fatal and there is no treatment. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease occurs in the West primarily in eastern Wyoming, northern Colorado and eastern Utah. It is also prevalent in parts of the Midwest.
    The agency states that no strong evidence of transmission of the disease to humans has been reported. However, it advises people to avoid eating meat from an animal suspected of having the disease, since its effect on humans has not been conclusively determined.
    The only way to test for the disease in animals is an examination of the brain after an animal has died.
    Under current Department of Agriculture rules, elk ranchers must submit the brains of all animals they slaughter or that die of other causes for testing. House Bill 431 would change that to require testing on only 10 percent of dead animals. It would also require that facility inspections be conducted every five years rather than annually.
    Miller said which 10 percent of an elk-raising operation’s dead animals would get tested would be determined by department rulemaking if the legislation passes.
    “We shouldn’t have to test healthy animals,” he said. “We should have to test any that are suspect.”
    In addition, the bill would increase fees for the tests.
    Bill Barton, administrator of the department’s Division of Animal Industries, said that over the past five years, fees collected through the division’s domestic cervidae program, which includes elk ranches, have been insufficient to cover costs. He said the program has been bolstered by fees collected from cattle and horse ranchers.
    Barton said that even though the bill was drafted by the elk-raising industry, it was based on financial figures supplied by the Division of Animal Industries. He said the changes proposed in the bill should cover the cervidae program’s costs.
    During a hearing on the bill before the House Agricultural Affairs Committee on Feb. 4, representatives of hunting and conservation groups said no additional risks should be taken regarding a disease that is so contagious.
    In a news release, the Idaho Conservation League contended that captive facilities can serve as incubators for the disease.
    “We are concerned that if a diseased domestic elk escapes from a pen or comes into contact with wild elk at a fence line (a common occurrence), the disease could spread to wild elk herds,” the release stated. “Even under current regulations, more than 100 domestic elk escaped from elk farms, and scores of wild deer, elk and moose were entrapped inside game farms in Idaho over the last several years.
    “We are extremely fortunate that chronic wasting disease has yet to be detected in Idaho’s wild herds. If this disease became established in Idaho’s wild game herds, effects could be disastrous.”
    However, Miller claimed that the chance of the disease originating at a commercial elk operation in Idaho is “slim to none.” Federal regulations that went into effect in December 2012 require that the ranch of origin of any elk imported from another state must have been monitored for the disease for at least five years.
    Both District 26 representatives, Donna Pence, D-Gooding, and Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, serve on the Agricultural Affairs Committee. Pence could not be reached by press deadline Thursday to find out how she planned to vote on the bill when it reaches the House floor. Miller said he had not decided on his vote, but was inclined toward supporting the bill.
    “From the evidence that was presented, I think the producers are in pretty good shape,” he said. “I think there’s more danger of the disease coming through the wild game population.”

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