Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to speak with you on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about chronic wasting disease.
CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of deer and elk, in the same family of diseases as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and scrapie. It has been diagnosed in farmed elk and deer herds in eight States. Currently, there are only three known positive captive cervid herds in the United States: two positive elk herds in Colorado and one positive deer herd in Wisconsin. Epidemiological investigations are ongoing that follow trace animals from these and other positive herds that have been depopulated. CWD has also been identified in free-ranging deer and elk in areas of Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The origin and mode of transmission of CWD are unknown.
To ensure a coordinated and cooperative Federal approach to assisting States, a task force including USDA and the Department of the Interior (DOI), along with universities and State wildlife management and agriculture agencies, drafted the “Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing CWD in Wild and Captive Cervids” (national plan). The national plan was shared with Congress in June 2002. The national plan’s components include action items for surveillance, diagnostics, and research, among other things. All agencies have been working together as budgets allow to implement the plan. The Department is committed to working with our State and tribal partners, as well as landowners and industry to implement an effective national program to combat chronic wasting disease. From FY 2003 through FY 2005 (President's Budget), Department funding for CWD has increased by 41%, from $16.4 million to $23.1 million. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2004, USDA-APHIS received $18.5 million which, after Congressional earmarks, is being divided roughly equally between the captive cervid program and assistance with addressing CWD in wild deer and elk. An additional $3.2 million was provided for USDA research activities in 2004, for total of $21.7 million. The FY 2005 budget includes $23.1 million, of which $20.1 is for APHIS and $3.0 is for research. However, funding decisions must be made on an annual basis, taking into consideration resource constraints and the many program needs that compete for these resources.
In January, a working group composed of many of the same people that put the national plan together held a progress meeting in St. Louis. This working group is currently compiling a CWD progress report. By examining each action item set forth in the national plan, the progress report highlights accomplishments and further needs. While much has been done in the past two years, the report illustrates that there is much left to do in the fight against CWD.
In addition to working with other Agencies on CWD, USDA is also moving ahead to address CWD in both captive and wild deer and elk populations.
USDA is continuing the development and implementation of its voluntary national herd certification program to eliminate CWD from farmed cervids. On December 24, 2003, we published a proposed rule on the certification program. We received over 120 comments on this proposal, and we are evaluating these comments now. We anticipate publishing a final rule soon with the goal of implementing the program by the end of this year. While we work on implementation of this program, we will continue to pay for all laboratory costs associated with CWD testing in the farmed cervid population, and positive and exposed farmed cervid herds will continue to be eligible for indemnity. USDA also pays the costs of depopulation and disposal. Our goal is nothing less than eradication of the disease in the farmed cervid population.
Although, as an agriculture agency, USDA's primary concern is with farmed cervids, we are also assisting States and Tribes in dealing with the wildlife aspect of the disease. USDA plans to make approximately $5.75 million available to the Tribal Nations and State wildlife agencies for this purpose. This funding will be distributed via cooperative agreements according to a formula initially developed in conjunction with the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWA) in FY 2003. That collaboration continues. Under this formula, States are classified according to Tiers. Tier 1 States, which have known occurrences of CWD in free-ranging cervids as of March 1, 2003, are eligible for the highest sums. States falling in the Tiers 2 and 3 are eligible for lower amounts. Through a cooperative agreement with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society (NAFWS), regional Tribal biologists have also been hired to help improve CWD surveillance on Tribal lands.
Our Wildlife Services program has been assisting State wildlife agencies with their activities. Our personnel have assisted with the harvesting of wild deer in Illinois and Wisconsin, and both deer and elk in Colorado for CWD testing. Additionally, we have assisted State wildlife agencies in collecting CWD samples from hunter-harvested deer at check stations in 10 States.
Our Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB) continues to approve new diagnostic test kits for CWD. Currently there are four tests that have been approved: one for use in elk, mule deer, and white-tail deer; another for mule deer and white-tailed deer; and two that are approved for white-tailed deer only. These diagnostic test kits are only available to APHIS approved laboratories contracted for CWD disease surveillance and are only licensed for use in wild deer and elk. These testing technologies provide wildlife agencies the ability to screen the large numbers of animals that are part of hunter harvest surveillance efforts. Immunohistochemistry (IHC) remains the internationally recognized method of choice for testing for TSEs and is being used for confirmation of positives as well as surveillance in captive deer and elk. CVB officials have placed a high priority on reviewing and evaluating other CWD test kits.
Research into the area of CWD has continued as well. Our National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) is researching the possibility of CWD vaccines as well as ways to identify improved barriers and repellents to keep wild deer and elk separated from captive cervids and other livestock. NWRC also plans to examine new decontamination methods for CWD-affected facilities.
The Agricultural Research Service has also undertaken several research projects, including assessing the interspecies transmission of TSEs among livestock species and cervids, assessing herbivore susceptibility to TSE, and identifying and developing new methods for detecting prion protein molecules in the environment and feedstuffs.
The Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES) supports research projects to determine the causes and methods for control of CWD through both competitive and formula-funded programs, as well as a Congressional special grant. In FY 2003, CSREES awarded $125,000 from the Critical Issues Program to Colorado State University to study the association of micronutrients and genetics with the prevalence of CWD in captive and free-ranging Rocky Mountain elk. CSREES also awarded a $232,180 special grant to the University of Wyoming to study the epidemiology and transmission of chronic wasting disease in deer using radiotelemetry equipment. Additionally, CSREES FY03 Hatch formula funds are supporting CWD projects in epidemiology, prion propagation, environmental persistence, and diagnostics at land grant institutions including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, and Purdue University. In FY04, several land grant and non-land grant universities, and Canadian and U.S. Federal agencies, including CSREES, have joined together to form a new multistate effort on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE’s) which will include a concentration on CWD.
Now that I’ve summarized USDA activities on CWD, I’d like to take a moment to discuss S.1366. S. 1366 would authorize the Department of Interior to make grants to State and Tribal governments to assist State and Tribal efforts to manage and control the spread of CWD.
For the past 2 years, Congress has provided additional appropriations to the APHIS program, which we have shared with the States and Tribes through cooperative agreements. As I mentioned earlier in my testimony, APHIS worked with IAFWA to develop criteria to distribute this funding to State wildlife agencies and NAFWS to meet CWD surveillance and management needs. Because this funding template has now been established, we think it would be most efficient to continue to use our existing system to pass CWD funds through to the States and Tribes, rather than create a new system as contemplated in S. 1366. For this reason, USDA does not think that this legislation is necessary.
CWD is an important issue to USDA. There is a lot of work being done, and it will continue as we implement our herd certification program and expand our efforts to assist the States and Tribes. By continuing to work together with our Federal and State counterparts, we believe we can provide the most comprehensive approach to addressing the disease, even as the science continues to develop.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.