Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Escaped elk ignites debate over disease

This week’s column deals with a government agency’s desire to kill an elk that escaped from a captive deer facility. Politicians won’t let them. Read on:

When someone in government does something stupid or embarrassing, the silence from official sources can be tomb-like.
Case in point? Let’s call it “The Saga of the Wandering Elk.”
Sometime last year, a bull elk escaped from a Greene Co., Pa., captive cervid facility and strolled across the Mason-Dixon line into Wetzel Co., W.Va.
It stayed there for a while, wandered back to Pennsylvania through the holidays, and recently turned up in Marshall County, W.Va., where it has become somewhat of a celebrity.
State wildlife officials are worried, and one can hardly blame them for their concern.
Elk can carry chronic wasting disease, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. The former kills elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer, and the latter two kill cattle.
Captive cervid facilities – places where deer and/or elk are kept behind tall fences and sold for their meat or shot for their antlers by wealthy people – are notorious incubators for chronic wasting disease.
Recent CWD outbreaks in Minnesota and Missouri wild deer were traced directly to captive cervid facilities. Division of Natural Resources officials worry that the footloose elk might also be diseased, and that it might infect local deer or cattle.
Marshall County isn’t exactly an agricultural hotspot, so the chance of spreading brucellosis or bovine tuberculosis is small. On the other hand, Marshall is home to one of West Virginia’s most highly concentrated deer populations. If chronic wasting disease gets started there, it could easily spread into the Northern Panhandle and down the entire Ohio Valley.
To prevent such a possibility, DNR officials would like to shoot the elk. They haven’t come out and said they would, but they issued a news release that strongly implied it.
Big mistake. Local citizens rallied around the elk. They took to Facebook and other social media to lobby on the creature’s behalf.
It’s an election year. The Legislature is in session. The last thing politicians want to do is to offend prospective voters.
So right now, DNR officials have been told not to pull the trigger. They also are forbidden from divulging which politico issued the stay of execution. In fact, they can’t comment about the elk at all.
More than a week ago, I called a DNR official and inquired about the critter’s status, and was told that all questions should be referred to Hoy Murphy, the agency’s public relations person.
I called Murphy. He wasn’t in, so I left a message on his voice mail. Shortly thereafter, I received the following e-mail:
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been told to put all media communications on hold for now. Things have been changing too fast for anyone to keep up, and they figure it’s better to have no response than to send out a response that may be outdated by the time it sees print. I promise I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Not to pick on Murphy, who is a good egg, but there aren’t many things that could change “too fast for anyone to keep up.” Either DNR sharpshooters are allowed to kill the elk or they aren’t.
There’s some question as to whether the elk can be killed on private property without the landowner’s permission, but again that’s an either-or situation.
My personal guess is that the only thing that’s rapidly changing is the potential for northern West Virginia’s deer to have a CWD outbreak. Should that happen, deer hunters should move heaven and earth to find out which politician prevented the DNR from doing something that’s clearly within its authority to do.