Car Crash Kills 2 Wildlife Scientists

December 31, 2004
Associated Press
Billings Gazette

CHEYENNE - Husband-and-wife wildlife veterinarians who were nationally prominent experts on chronic wasting disease and brucellosis were killed in a snowy-weather crash on U.S. 287 in northern Colorado, authorities confirmed Thursday.

Tom Thorne and Beth Williams, of Wyoming's rural Albany County, died when their pickup truck hit a jackknifed trailer Wednesday night, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Colorado Highway Patrol.

Williams, 53, had taught at the University of Wyoming since 1982 and was also familiar with wildlife diseases. "She was probably the foremost chronic wasting disease expert in the country," Game and Fish spokesman Al Langston said.

Thorne, 63, was acting director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for nine months in 2002 and 2003. He worked in the department for 35 years before retiring in 2003 and was a prominent researcher of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, as well as of brucellosis in bison and elk.

The accident happened at about 10 p.m. on snowpacked pavement near Virginia Dale a few miles south of the Wyoming state line, according to Colorado State Trooper Scott Boskovich.

Both vehicles had been going at least 10 mph below the speed limit. After spinning out of control and coming to a stop in the northbound lanes, the trailer was struck by Williams and Thorne's 2002 Ford pickup, which was wedged underneath, according to Master Trooper Ron Watkins.

The rig driver, Bruce Gustin, 45, of Divide, Colo., was unhurt. Neither drug nor alcohol use was suspected.

Mike Miller, veterinarian for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said Williams and Thorne were both known and respected by peers worldwide.

"Beth, literally, was the foundation of everything that we really have learned over the years about chronic wasting disease," Miller said.

Williams also extensively researched other wildlife diseases, including distemper in black-footed ferrets. Miller said he believes that she and Thorne were instrumental in saving the ferrets, thought to be extinct until 18 of them were found near Meeteetse, Wyo., in the early 1980s.

Williams and Thorne recognized that distemper was killing the animals, which were saved and became the base population for black-footed ferrets released in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and other states to rebuild their numbers.

Tom Buchanan, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Wyoming, said he was saddened to hear of the deaths. "She will be missed by her colleagues, her students and her friends, who include everyone who cares about wildlife and ranching in the Rocky Mountain West," he said of Williams in a prepared statement.

Williams earned a bachelor's in zoology from the University of Maryland-College Park, followed by a doctorate of veterinary medicine from Purdue in 1977 and a doctorate in veterinary pathology from Colorado State University in 1981.

She earned several honors during her 22 years at the University of Wyoming, including the Wildlife Disease Association's Distinguished Service Award in 1996 and, in 1999, the Wyoming Game Warden Association's award for outstanding assistance to wildlife law enforcement.

Thorne was one of three finalists for Game and Fish director in 2003. Previously he was assistant chief and chief of the department's Services Division, and branch chief of the state's Wildlife Veterinary Research Services.

Over the years he was also vice president of the Wildlife Disease Association, chairman of the Advisory Council for the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, and chairman of the U.S. Health Association's Wildlife Diseases Committee.

He held a bachelor's degree in zoology and doctorate in veterinary medicine from Oklahoma State University.

Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease, causing brain wasting and eventually death. It emerged in Colorado and Wyoming more than 30 years ago and has been found in recent years as far away as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause cattle to abort their calves. It is common in elk and bison in northwest Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. Brucellosis also has been detected in a handful of cattle herds in Wyoming over the past year, causing the state to lose its federal status as a brucellosis-free state.

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