WASHINGTON — The federal government is pitching in $4 million to help key states in their efforts to combat chronic wasting disease.

State officials and researchers in Montana and Wyoming say the money will enhance efforts to monitor and manage deer and elk with the neurological disease. The disease can cause small lesions in the brains of infected animals and results in loss of muscle, strange behavior and eventually death.

“We’ve got a lot of gaps in our data and it is important to fill them in,” University of Wyoming professor of veterinary sciences Beth Williams said. “Having this money will help out a lot.”

As a state that has already found cases of the disease in free-ranging deer and elk, Wyoming will receive $93,750 for surveillance and $125,000 for management. Seven other states, including Wyoming neighbors Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah, have reported cases in free-ranging populations and would receive the same amount. These states are defined as “Tier One” by the Agriculture Department.

On Thursday morning, Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials were already working on a preliminary plan for what to do with the money, according to department spokeswoman Michelle Zitek. The money could be used for everything from brochures to equipment for faster tests to studies for identifying the leading edge of the disease.

Montana and other “Tier Two” states that are either adjacent to Tier One states or have had occurrences of the disease on game farms will receive a smaller portion of the pot. They will receive $71,429 for surveillance and an additional $71,249 for management. All other states are defined as “Tier Three” states and will receive $44,642 for surveillance and an additional $44,642 for management.

Montana is both adjacent to Tier One states and had an outbreak on the Kesler Game Farm near Philipsburg, Mont. In response to the outbreak, in 2000 referendum Montanans voted to ban new game farms and restrict the marketing of domesticated wildlife from existing operations. State legislators are working on efforts to either negate or change the ban.

Regardless of what the legislators do, Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ron Aasheim said that the disease would probably spread to the state’s free-range deer and elk populations.

“It is probably just a matter of time,” Aasheim said. “There’s not much that we can do to prevent it.”

The money from the Agriculture Department will help the state minimize the impact of the disease.

“We’re already testing aggressively and this will allow us to increase our efforts,” Aasheim said.

According to a report released by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on April 11, 110 of 2,550 deer and elk carcasses sampled from the 2002 hunting season tested positive for chronic wasting disease. The department reported that 105 of the 1,775 deer carcasses sampled were positive and five of the 795 elk carcasses tested were positive.

Cases of chronic wasting disease were first identified in Wyoming in the late 1960s and it was identified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) in 1978. It is similar to Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, and the sheep disease scrapie.

Although the chronic wasting disease is contagious among deer and elk, there has been no evidence of transmission from deer and elk to humans, cattle or other domestic livestock. Research suggests that people in England were infected with the human version of the disease by eating meat from cows infected with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Nevertheless, a jump in chronic wasting disease cases represents a greater threat to the economies of Montana and Wyoming than to the public’s health.

In 2002, hunters and anglers spent $593 million in Montana and $369 million in Wyoming, according to The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. The organization, which lobbies Congress on issues affecting hunters and anglers, says that the activities have a major ripple effect on the states’ economies.

“Currently I don’t see an impact, but I don’t know what will happen 10 years down the road,” Zitek said. “It is really difficult to say if we will be able to keep it in check. We know so little about it.”

Richard Race hopes that some of the money that states will be receiving will be used to coordinate activities. Race is a senior scientist at the National Institute of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Mont.

“What the Agriculture Department needs to work toward is having more uniform rules,” Race said. “You have some states that are doing a lot and some that aren’t doing anything. The biggest weakness is a lack of uniformity.

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