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Renamed group plays on fears, says CWD expert

HELENA - An organization promoting an initiative to restrict game farms in Montana has adopted an acronym that attempts to link the issue to the deadly mad cow disease found in England.

The discovery of chronic wasting disease in game farm elk near Philipsburg last year is one reason that MADCOW - Montanans Against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife - wants to prevent licensing of new game farms.

But a leading national expert on the wasting disease, known as CWD, and representatives of the game farm industry said the effort to make mad cow disease part of the debate is deceptive.

"It's very misleading to the public," said Beth Williams, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Wyoming and a leading expert on CWD. "It's being done in a sensationalistic way and playing on people's fears."

While both diseases are brain infections, they are as different as measles in humans and distemper in dogs, she said.

The initiative backers are using methods "that create fear and misconception," said Jack Schubarth, a game farm owner from Vaughn. "It's an effort to excite the public."

Initiative supporters said they changed the group's name in the past month to attract more attention. The original name was Montanans Against the Commercialization of Wildlife, or MACOW.

"MADCOW is more catchy," said Gary Holmquist of Lolo, president of the organization. He also said it more accurately reflects the group's opposition to domesticating wildlife in game farms.

Stan Frasier of the Montana Wildlife Association said every political campaign needs to get noticed and the use of MADCOW will help get the public's interest.

He insisted the reference to the cattle disease is not misleading. "CWD and the mad cow (disease) are the same thing," he said. "They're just called different things in different species."

However, Holmquist had a different view. "In no way, shape or form do we claim that CWD and mad cow are one and the same," he said.

Still, a news release from his organization this week referred to the proposed game farm ballot measure proposal as the "MADCOW initiative."

Both diseases are a form of neurological infection, but their symptoms, victims and threat to humans differ, Williams said.

Use of a mad cow reference in connection with CWD "implies one is the same as the other and they're not," Williams said. "It's not valid to bring mad cow into the discussion."

The head of Montana's game farm trade organization called it propaganda.

Gerri Backes of Kalispell, president of Montana Alternative Livestock Producers, said the ploy will not sway voters. "I think our Montanans are more intelligent than to think that mad cow disease is an issue here in North America."

Frasier said he doubts references to mad cow disease will become a strategy in any campaign for the initiative, should it earn a spot on the November ballot. But he said the measure's supporters will emphasize their concern that game farms can spread animal disease.

Williams said researchers have found no proof that the two diseases can pass between cattle and deer or elk. Conversely, Frasier said studies have not proved that such transmission is impossible.

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