Rocky Barker: Lighting a fire about chronic wasting disease testing in Idaho

rbarker@idahostatesman.comFebruary 17, 2014 

One of the few victories for Idaho sporting groups in the Legislature was the defeat of a bill brought by elk farmers in 2011 to reduce testing for chronic wasting disease, the wildlife version of mad cow disease.

Sporting groups were able to stop the effort to weaken the testing program for a nasty disease that historically passed from domestic animals to wild herds. Idaho requires that 100 percent of the elk killed on farms in the state be tested for chronic wasting disease, the same as other states.

But the Idaho Department of Agriculture, which ensures ranchers do the required testing, says it doesn’t have the funds to manage the program. It wants the elk industry to do what most other industries do: pay the costs of its regulation.

The Idaho Elk Breeder’s Association came back this legislative session with a proposal to require testing for just 10 percent of elk killed. Most of that cost will come from the Idaho elk license plate, which already dedicates $1.25 of the initial fee and 75 cents of the renewal fee to “testing surveillance and detection of wildlife diseases and domestic livestock diseases that may affect wildlife including ... chronic wasting disease.”

That bill passed the House without much trouble and it is expected to come before the Senate Agriculture Committee as early as Tuesday.

That has hunter John Caywood and other sportsmen scrambling to get Idaho hunters to show as much concern about the threat of chronic wasting disease as they do about wolves.

In 2004, Wisconsin’s wild deer herds became infected with chronic wasting disease. It takes three years for symptoms to show once the disease is carried into a population. It causes small lesions on the brain, which weakens and kills its host.

In Wisconsin, chronic wasting spread from a deer farm; once it got into the wild population, the state lost control.

Wisconsin spent $32 million just to manage the disease and help hunters test their game before eating it. The danger is so important that the federal government now requires 100 percent of domestic elk and similar animals be tested for five years when exported beyond state lines.

Idaho elk farmers have benefited from the growing demand for wild elk meat. It’s healthier than beef, brings a premium price and is another Idaho agricultural product for which we can be proud.

Most farmers already test 100 percent of their elk because they want to be certified to sell nationwide. A few dozen of the 58 Idaho elk ranchers have “shooter-bull” operations, where they sell the opportunity to hunt elk in a fenced-in enclosure big enough to make wealthy hunters feel like they are in the Idaho wilderness.

Since they don’t export the meat, those ranchers are the ones who would benefit from reduced testing. They argue that since chronic wasting disease has not shown up in their elk, hunters should not worry.

Idaho has stayed free of chronic wasting disease because of its testing protocol. Caywood thinks it should continue. He says the Legislature, and the rest of the elk industry for that matter, is being sold a bill of goods.

“This testing scheme is not based in science, but only in calculations by those few dozen operators seeking reduced costs, regardless of their operations’ risks to other Idahoans,” he said.

This is an election year. Idaho lawmakers can count. Will dozens of hunters fill the Capitol to protest this bill?

“I’ve been throwing matches around for three weeks hoping to start a forest fire,” Caywood said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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