Colorado State University will begin an elk-breeding research project studying elk containing a gene for resistance to chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain and nervous system disease that affects certain wildlife such as elk and some deer, at a university research center near Durango. The research project will focus on breeding elk in natural, free-ranging but controlled conditions to enhance presence of a gene identified to make elk resistant to the disease.
An agreement solidifying the project was approved today by the Board of Governors, the board overseeing Colorado State University, which puts a multi-year sublease in place with a non-profit institute that will help manage the project and supply elk, in addition to providing fencing and handling facilities needed for research. The joint research project, with partner Cervid Research and Recovery Institute, a non-profit entity created to conduct elk genetic research, will take place at the Colorado State University San Juan Basin Research Center in Hesperus.
"The Agricultural Experiment Station feels that this is a priority opportunity to expand animal breeding research," said Lee Sommers, Colorado State Agricultural Experiment Station director. "Research into helping animals build a defense against chronic wasting disease and other related transmissible spongiform encephalopathies is very important to wildlife, recreation and agricultural industries."
The genetics project will work to increase the number of elk with a CWD-resistant gene identified by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists several years ago in Washington state through laboratory work. The gene exists in a small number of elk, including a herd owned by CRRI that has been identified for use in the research project. Eventually, the project may increase the number of elk with the resistant gene.
"Because we already know that animals with this gene show greater resistance to CWD, we will focus on breeding for its increased presence," said Sommers. "We chose the university’s San Juan Basin Research Center site because CWD has not been identified in that area of the state. The site also offers availability of land to pursue our long-term interest in animal breeding and reproductive research projects of this nature."
Chronic wasting disease affects elk and three relatives: mule deer, white-tail deer and black-tail deer. Animals show signs of infection that include staggering, listlessness, abnormal behavior, loss of fear of humans, excessive drooling and drinking, frequent urination, drooping ears, a rough coat and weight loss. The disease is caused by a prion, a small, irregular or defective protein that is made from normal protein-making genes common to all animals. Unlike regular protein, this protein cannot be broken down in the body and accumulates in the brain of infected animals. The accumulated protein causes degeneration of the brain and, eventually, death.
At this time, CWD is not considered to have human health implications, but the consumption of meat from infected deer and elk is discouraged.
Colorado State is a leading CWD research institution. The disease was first observed in Fort Collins in 1967 at a government research facility.