U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   04/06/2004
 
Statement of Chip Groat
Director
U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, VA
Chronic Wasting Disease Financial Assistance Act of 2003.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to provide the Subcommittee with the Department of the Interior's (Department) views regarding S. 1036, the “Chronic Wasting Disease Support Act of 2003,” and S. 1366, the “Chronic Wasting Disease Financial Support Act of 2003.” The Department continues to be concerned with the current and future effects of chronic wasting disease (CWD) on free-ranging deer and elk.

The Department supports the concepts embodied in these bills, particularly the recognition and facilitation of the critical role that state wildlife management agencies, universities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play in limiting the distribution and occurrence of CWD. However, we note that several of its provisions direct the Secretary to carry out programs which appear, at least in part, duplicative of ongoing efforts within the Department. Moreover, the new funding required for implementation must compete with other priorities in the context of the President’s Budget.

Before I provide specific comments on S. 1036 and S. 1366, I would like to take this opportunity to inform you of the latest efforts undertaken by the Department to understand and combat CWD.

RECENT DEPARTMENTAL ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The Department manages about one in every five acres of land in the United States and has a variety of stewardship responsibilities for our natural resources. Through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Department provides assistance to, cooperates with and, in some cases, co-manages wildlife with states and tribes to ensure healthy, viable wildlife populations.

Through increased surveillance and monitoring, CWD has been discovered in free-ranging deer or elk in eight states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The possibility for detection of this disease in additional states, coupled with the little information we know about the nature and spread of this disease, increases the urgency and need to find effective means of detection and control.

With this in mind, we recognize that states and tribes possess primary responsibility for management of resident fish and wildlife within their borders. However, in order to successfully combat CWD, we believe we must continue to employ an approach that is built on the strengths of federal agencies and state and tribal entities. Using this approach, the Department conducts research into the biology and management of this disease, provides wildlife-related laboratory services, offers technical advice and assistance to our partners, and works in close cooperation with the states. Additionally, we are working to foster and facilitate close working relationships with private landowners and incorporate their needs into surveillance strategies and outbreak responses.

The Department has taken an active role in fiscal year (FY) 2004 by committing over $4 million to investigate and combat CWD. The funds are used by USGS to expand research and deliver technical assistance and pertinent biological information about the disease to federal and state agencies. The NPS is continuing its monitoring and surveillance efforts at high risk parks and management efforts at Rocky Mountain National Park and Wind Cave National Park. This effort is carried out in concert with the Colorado Division of Wildlife efforts on adjacent State lands. The FWS is developing field guidelines for enhanced surveillance and the development of disease contingency plans in the event that the National Wildlife Refuge System detects the disease within its borders.

Over the past year, the Department has embarked on an aggressive program of research into the biology of CWD, its hosts, and its transmission pathways. In addition, USGS and its partners are working to develop methods needed to identify diseased animals before signs of the disease are apparent. During FY 2003 and 2004, the USGS committed a total of $2.7 million to its CWD program.

The Department's land management bureaus have also contributed to the application of science in the management of federal lands under their control. Most prominently, the NPS, which manages more than 84 million acres contained in 388 park units, is extremely concerned about CWD and the potential impacts this disease could have upon the wildlife resources of the parks and adjacent lands. To date, deer and elk with CWD have been detected in only two National Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

The disease was first documented in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, in 1981. Based on samples taken from live deer at the park, the prevalence of infection for deer is about 5-6 percent, roughly the same for animals in the area surrounding the park. The prevalence of the disease in elk in areas adjacent to the park was estimated by the State of Colorado at 1-4 percent, and is likely similar within the park. The park is continuing tactical management activities for CWD within the Park and collaborative efforts on research and joint strategy development with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW). The park is culling deer and elk with clinical signs of the disease and deer that test positive for CWD using tonsillar biopsy. Additionally, an Environmental Impact Statement for the park’s Elk and Vegetation Management Plan is in preparation.

The first case of CWD at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, was detected in November 2002. The park has stepped up surveillance and live testing of deer and has to date documented CWD in five deer and two elk. The park continues a collaborative planning effort with the State of South Dakota on an elk management plan. Live animal testing efforts, using tonsillar biopsy, and removal of CWD positive deer will also continue as an important management approach there.

Due to their proximity to nearby infected wild deer and elk herds, CWD can also threaten wildlife on adjacent federal lands, including Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming and Montana, Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado, and Agate Fossil Beds and Scotts Bluff National Monuments in western Nebraska.

In addition to funding investigations of CWD at Rocky Mountain National Park and Wind Cave National Park with Service-wide Natural Resource Preservation and Protection project funding, the NPS received additional funds in FY 2004 to address emerging diseases, especially CWD. The NPS is fielding a CWD Response Team, modeled after the highly successful exotic plant management teams which it uses to combat nonindigenous plants in park lands, to continue and expand on the NPS’s ability to respond quickly to CWD issues in park units. The NPS is also continuing collaboration with researchers at Colorado State University investigating CWD epidemiology, transmission, and pathology.

The FWS has been assisting states in CWD monitoring and surveillance, as it develops field guidelines at a national level for coordinated monitoring and surveillance. These guidelines are being designed collaboratively with the states to help determine CWD distribution and movement. In addition, disease contingency plans are being coordinated with states to manage CWD in the event that the National Wildlife Refuge System detects the disease within its borders. New detections of CWD in Wyoming and expansion in Nebraska deer indicate that CWD poses a critical threat to national cervid resources. Similarly, elk and deer at the National Elk Refuge and Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge are in the path of potential CWD expansions. FWS has conducted CWD training workshops covering the eight states of its Mountain-Prairie Region, which included participation of partners and Native American tribes.

COOPERATIVE RESEARCH EFFORTS

As an example of our commitment to cooperate with States on this issue, USGS recently developed a program to work cooperatively with six states affected by CWD: Colorado, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah. This $300,000 effort has helped initiate projects that will develop critical information on issues ranging from deer movements and ecology to the develoment of theraputic agents.

In December 2002, USGS coordinated efforts with state, federal, and university partners to develop a strategy to assist agencies in their development of surveillance programs. This document, “Surveillance Strategies for Detecting Chronic Wasting Disease in Free-ranging Deer and Elk” represents another important cooperative effort.

New USGS research initiated within the past year addresses the CWD problem using both laboratory and field approaches. Through the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, we have initiated studies with Montana State University to develop a serum test for CWD biomarkers to facilitate early detection of the disease. These investigators are also working on a rapid, strain-specific immunoassay for CWD that will help detect differences in strains among populations and newly emerging strains that may appear over time. We are also working with the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game to establish a CWD tissue bank to provide biological tissue resources for research projects.

In addition, USGS scientists working with those at Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin are looking at specific immune system genes that have been shown to influence transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) pathogenesis. The purpose of this investigation is to determine if there is an association between specific genes and CWD resistance in wild white-tailed deer. There are several field studies underway by the USGS Wisconsin Cooperative Research Unit in Madison, Wisconsin in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Other evaluations underway include a look at the practice of feeding and baiting deer, in order to determine if this increases the risk of transmission in wild deer, and the role of small mammals and scavengers that feed on deer carcasses is being investigated in the context of the disease cycle. Also, the potential for other wildlife species to contract CWD is being studied in the intensive deer management zone in Wisconsin. Genetics relationships among deer with CWD are also under investigation. Results from these studies will ultimately be used in developing risk assessment and epidemiological models. The USGS National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) has established a Wildlife Disease Information Node that highlights activities and information related to CWD to assist in data sharing across organizations.

The Department has also worked in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, as well as universities, state wildlife management and agricultural agencies, to develop a coordinated management approach to addressing CWD. This National CWD Plan approach, released in June 2002, includes strategies for communication, information dissemination, diagnostics, disease management, research, and surveillance. The Department has also recently participated with the states and Department of Agriculture in preparing the Progress Report to the National CWD Plan.

DEPARTMENTAL VIEWS ON S. 1036 AND S. 1366

The potential for detection of CWD in free-ranging deer and elk in additional states points out the need for continued coordination in the effort to manage this disease. S.1036 and S.1366 would address this need by directing the Department, through the USGS, the NPS, and the FWS, to undertake work on several fronts important to limiting the distribution and occurrence of CWD.

As previously noted, the Department supports the concepts embodied in these bills, particularly the recognition of the critical role played by state wildlife management agencies, universities, and NGOs in limiting the distribution and occurrence of CWD. I should note that, in fact, the Department has already initiated work on several of these important initiatives, and we have done so in close coordination with states, tribes, and other federal agencies.

Generally, S.1366 would authorize the Secretary, through the FWS, to make grants to states and tribes to assist in the development of and implementation of long-term management strategies, and to state wildlife management agencies to assist in responding to CWD outbreaks in wild cervid populations. We note that the state grant programs authorized by this section appear duplicative of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s existing authority to make state wildlife grants.

S.1036 provides for a multi-agency cooperative effort against CWD by the Departments of the Interior (through Title I) and Agriculture (through II). Section 101 of S. 1036 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to allocate funds directly to state wildlife agencies for the purpose of developing and implementing CWD management strategies. The criteria provided for the allocation of funds address the need to prioritize this financial support based on the relative rate of incidence, state financial commitments to CWD programs, integration of state policies related to CWD management, and the need to respond rapidly to disease outbreaks in new areas of infection. This grant program also appears duplicative of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s state wildlife grants program.

Sections 102, 103, and 104 of S. 1036 would, generally, direct the Secretary to establish a modeling program to predict the spread of CWD in wild deer and elk; using existing authorities, a CWD surveillance and monitoring program on federal lands; and, finally, using existing authorities, a national, internet-based repository of information on CWD. The Department supports modeling efforts, as well as the development of a national data respository. We believe the need for sharing information is critical to making informed, science-based, management decisions. Such a database will take full advantage of our existing capabilities in biology, mapping, and scientific database development. Maintaining CWD-related data on both wild and captive populations will facilitate integrated analyses and allow practical "lessons learned" in diagnosis, surveillance, and control to be shared rapidly among a wide range of users. In fact, through its National Biological Information Infrastructure, the USGS is already developing a prototype Wildlife Disease Information Network, which will include a CWD national data repository for scientific, technical, and geospatial information. CWD data will be collected through state and federal agencies, tribes, and other sources. However, in terms of the database suggested by this legislation, we believe that it should be developed in coordination with Department of Agriculture, which has oversight responsibility for captive cervids.

As dicussed above, the establishment of surveillance and monitoring programs are already underway. The NPS is currently conducting surveillance programs and managing the disease on national park lands, and the FWS is finalizing a plan for surveillance on National Wildlife Refuges. The USGS has assisted both state and federal agencies in the design considerations for surveillance, and will continue its research on critical aspects of the disease ecology and impacts.

CONCLUSION

The Department’s role as stewards of our natural resources and our strong cooperative relationship with states and other partners have allowed us to facilitate development of a coordinated strategy to combat CWD. We fully support the concepts advanced by these bills, and offer to work with the Committee to ensure that, if enacted, these bills provide an efficient and effective use of our resources and authorities.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement and I am pleased to respond to your questions.