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Missouri-bound elk pass first of several health tests

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- Elk that are the nucleus of a restored herd in southeastern Missouri have passed one of several health tests necessary before coming to their new home.

A veterinary health workup of the elk Jan. 25 marked the start of a 90-day quarantine period to ensure the animals' health, using health protocols more stringent than any that apply to livestock brought into Missouri.

MDC and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources trapped the elk. Veterinary tests are being conducted at a holding pen on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Kentucky.  All elk passed the first round of TB testing.

Jason Sumners, MDC resource scientist, said "we will retest in late April to be sure they are TB-free. In the meantime, we have several other tests to perform to be sure the elk we bring to Missouri are healthy."

The next test on Missouri's elk will be in March for chronic wasting disease, which uses tiny tissue samples from lymph nodes on the animals' hindquarters.

"This test is not yet certified by veterinary health officials," Sumners explained. "In fact, there is no approved live test for CWD. However, this is the best tool we have to detect CWD in live animals, and we feel it is a prudent measure to protect Missouri's wild and captive deer."

Testing for other diseases currently is underway on blood samples. These tests will check for anaplasmosis, brucellosis, bovine viral diarrhea, vesicular stomatitis, epizootic hemorrhagic disease and blue tongue.

Sumners said the handling necessary for these tests is extremely stressful for the elk.

"These are truly wild animals," said Sumners. "They do their best to avoid people, and they can injure themselves or others as they try to avoid being herded into confined spaces. We try to minimize this danger, but a few injuries are inevitable."

Sumners said MDC has had to euthanize several elk because of injuries and from capture myopathy, a condition that affects elk and white-tailed deer when they are trapped and handled. Forty-one elk remain in the holding pen in Kentucky.

All elk that die at the holding pen are examined to determine the cause of death and tested for CWD.

Sumners said that approximately 10 percent of wild elk cows in Kentucky die each year from natural causes. Most of this annual mortality occurs during the winter. While losses among the captured elk have been higher than natural winter mortality, Sumners said this was expected.

Wild elk's sensitivity to human disturbance is one of the reasons MDC restricts access to the holding pen in Kentucky and will continue to do so while the animals are in a holding pen at Peck Ranch Conservation Area this spring. Elk viewing will be unrestricted once the elk are released into the elk-restoration zone.

"We would like to allow public viewing," Sumners said, "however, other states' experience has shown the importance of limiting that. Even a few people around a holding pen make elk skittish. We have to keep that kind of disturbance to a minimum for the animals' safety."

Missouri's elk have been fitted with ear tags and with tiny, implanted identification tags like those on pets. Each elk brought to Missouri will receive a radio collar before being released into the 346-square mile elk-restoration zone covering parts of Carter, Reynolds and Shannon counties, so their movements can be tracked.

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