Formerly Captive Deer, Elk Pose Health Risk to Wild Deer in Iowa

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DES MOINES – Iowa wildlife officials have been tracking elk in and around the Yellow River State Forest that are likely escapees from a captive herd in Allamakee County. One elk was killed by state conservation officers last week, but at least four remain at large, which gives state officials cause for concern about the potential impacts from disease to Iowa’s white tailed deer herd and domestic livestock industry.

The DNR has been working with the state veterinarian at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), who supports the effort to dispatch the escaped elk.

Dr. Dale Garner, chief of wildlife with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the instances of escapees from captive deer and elk herds are on the increase.

“Our top concern is for the health of our deer herd and for our domestic livestock,” Garner said. “Because once chronic wasting disease (CWD) or bovine tuberculosis (TB) is out there, there is no going back. For the most part, there will be no happy ending to this situation.”

CWD is a neurological disease affecting cervids, primarily deer and elk. It is caused by an abnormal protein, called a prion, that attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to lose weight, display abnormal behavior and lose bodily functions. Signs include excessive salivation, thirst and urination, loss of appetite, progressive weight loss, listlessness and drooping ears and head.

Garner said the problems associated with CWD are unfolding across the river in Wisconsin where five years ago, less than 10 percent of the male deer in the herd from their core area had CWD. Today, that number is more than 20 percent. In Wyoming, the percentage with CWD is much higher.

There have been 48 instances in Iowa since 2007 of elk escaping from captive herds involving 81 animals. When an elk sighting report comes in, the DNR works with IDALS to determine status of elk and the best available options. If the elk can be returned to the proper owners, then they are. If not, they then pose a risk to spreading CWD and/or other diseases and are dispatched. The elk are tested for CWD and if the tests are negative, the meat is donated to local needy families or a food bank.

“While the risk that the escapees are introducing CWD or TB to our wild deer may be small, the consequence to the resource is enormous,” Garner said. “This is a risk that should be avoided.

“Having these escapees is more than a minor irritation. The prion linked to CWD does not go away when the infected animal dies. It stays active in the soil and contaminated soil can infect other animals, in addition to animal to animal transmission,” Garner said. “TB is extremely difficult to get rid of and cost billions of dollars to the livestock industry.”

Deer hunting has been a $200 million per year economic boost to much of rural Iowa through gas, lodging, meals and hunting supplies. Deer hunters have traveled to hunt in northeast Iowa, where about 10 percent of Iowa’s deer harvest occurs in Winneshiek, Allamakee, Fayette and Clayton counties.

Garner said Iowa does not have the large land areas typically needed to support an elk herd. Elk are two to three times the size of an Iowa white tail, averaging between 500 to 700 pounds.