CSU will eye herd’s resistance to wasting malady

HESPERUS – A band of researchers has an ambitious plan to study elk with genes that appear to make them less prone to a fatal brain infection called chronic wasting disease.

The variant gene that may reduce susceptibility to the scourge of CWD appears naturally in wild and captive elk populations, but it is found in very low frequencies, researchers say. This suggests that elk with this gene type might have other problems that affect their survival or breeding.

Colorado State University scientists will work with a private nonprofit group called the Cervid Research and Recovery Institute to monitor a disease-free elk herd of about 200, some with and some without the special gene type, on 1,200 acres of the San Juan Basin Research Center at Hesperus.

“We have the only herd in the world that is completely DNA-profiled and genotyped,” said institute research coordinator Barry Dyar of Bayfield, a former elk rancher. “We’re trying to identify if this is a viable genotype, to identify any deficiencies it could have, and to figure out ways to correct the problems. We’re working on a solution to CWD. We want to get past crisis management. It’s not working.”

The institute says its ultimate goal is to develop a strain of North American elk that is genetically immune to CWD. The disease, first detected in a captive deer herd in northeastern Colorado in 1967, has spread to parts of a dozen states and two Canadian provinces. It is far more pervasive in deer herds than in elk.

The elk herd at Hesperus will not be subjected to genetic engineering or tested for resistance to CWD, research center manager Doug Zalesky emphasized at a public meeting Wednesday night. The disease has not been detected anywhere in southwestern Colorado, and it will not be introduced here, he said. The plan is just to investigate the genotype’s overall fitness and the potential for selective- breeding programs.

Other research continues elsewhere on whether the genotype, first identified in the mid-1990s, really confers any CWD resistance to its carriers, state Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller said.

“This may be a long shot, but it shows enough promise to expand the studies,” CSU Agricultural Experiment Station director Lee Sommers said.

The private institute is donating the 215 animals to the joint project. The herd has been living at a small research facility near Oxford for the past seven years, and it has been tested and re-tested for infectious diseases, Dyar said.

“There’s very, very little risk associated with initiating this project,” Zalesky told Hesperus area ranchers.

The considerable acreage at the Hesperus research station would more closely resemble a free- range situation, Zalesky said. The land could be committed to the project for the next decade and a half, as long as CSU’s governing board approves it. Its first opportunity to do so will be at a meeting Tuesday.