Outdoor Life Online Editor

An ambitious program to reintroduce elk to their historic range east of the Mississippi River has suffered setbacks as some states worry that the transplanted animals could expose wild deer to a degenerative brain disease.

Last summer, Missouri’s Department of Conservation, saying chronic wasting disease (CWD) could devastate the state’s whitetail herd, halted a planned release of wild elk to the Ozarks. A similar restoration effort is on hold in Virginia, and elk transplanted to western Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes in 1996 are still in a pen, waiting approval for their final release into the wild.

A proposal to restore elk to New York’s Catskill Mountains could be the latest victim of concern over the disease, which occurs naturally in wild elk and deer herds in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.

Chronic wasting disease, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy similar to the “mad cow” disease that crippled Europe’s cattle industry, is also found in some domesticated elk raised on game farms. The disease isn’t transmissible to humans or to livestock, but concern that a translocated elk could spread the disease is shared by game commissions, agriculture groups and even some sportsmen’s clubs.

“Although small, there is a chance infected elk that show no symptoms of the disease could enter the state through a restoration project,” says Missouri Conservation Commission chairman Randy Herzog. “We felt it would be unwise to take that risk.”

But the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), the Missoula, Mont.-based conservation group that has sponsored successful elk relocations in the last six years to Kentucky, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Tennessee, says fear of CWD among transplanted elk is misplaced. First, elk used in these restoration projects are taken from the wild, and from areas that have no incidence of CWD, says Tom Toman, a biologist with the RMEF. “We go through very strenuous disease testing on all the projects we’re involved with. After the animals are captured, we quarantine them, and if any elk shows sign of any disease, they’re not moved.” A larger issue for Toman is the possibility that infected game-farm elk could pass CWD to wild herds. Domestic elk herds with exposure to CWD have been destroyed in Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Saskatchewan.

New York’s elk restoration plan should be out for public comment this spring, and West Virginia has expressed interest in reintroducing elk to the Alleghenies. While game commissions balance risk with opportunity, hunters in other states are enjoying newfound bounty: Last fall both Pennsylvania and Kentucky held their first regulated elk hunts in over a century.