April, 30 2002 The Denver Post by Theo SteinFor the first time, the federal government is buying out ranchers with healthy elk to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
None of the roughly 15 ranchers taking advantage of the buyout has had an animal suffer a case of the fatal brain-wasting disease. But all of their properties are located in the 'endemic area' where wild game has been infected for decades. Officials fear it's only a matter of time before a wild deer or elk infects a captive herd. So teams of veterinarians from state and federal agriculture departments began the grim work of killing elk on a Livermore ranch Monday, state agriculture spokesman Jim Miller told a governor's task force.
By the time they're done, 1,200 domestic elk will have been killed, including the 15 elk at Larry and Deborah Holestine's 80-acre spread in Gill.
'It's heart-wrenching, to say the very least,' said Deborah, 51. 'But we don't have much of a choice. We're pretty much at a point where we can't do anything with our elk. It's a no-win situation.'
It's the second time the federal government has bailed out the beleaguered Colorado elk industry. Last winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture earmarked $ 12.6 million to control an outbreak of the disease that produced 49 cases on ranches in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. More than 1,700 elk have been killed in Colorado alone.
It's unclear how much the federal agency intends to spend on buying out the ranchers.
Elk on ranches along the Interstate 25 corridor will be killed first, and the animals' heads sent to a Colorado State University laboratory for testing. Then the teams will move east onto the high plains.
CWD is thought to be caused by a mutant form of a naturally occurring brain protein. The disease makes its victims grow thin and die as it eats microscopic holes in their brains. Symptoms develop months or years after infection. And because there's no live test for elk, animals have to be killed to determine whether they were healthy.
All six of the Holestines' elk tested during the investigation into last year's outbreak were healthy. Holestine expects the rest are, too.
'This has been a severe blow to the industry,' said Don Ament, director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. 'Even those whose herds have been under surveillance for a number of months are unable to sell their products.'
Under the USDA program, ranchers received 95 percent of their animals appraised value, capped at $ 3,000 per head.
Larry Holestine said his check from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be $ 36,000. But the family spent $ 58,000 to buy animals and semen to establish their herd, and another $ 40,000 on the specialized fencing, chutes and barns to manage it.
Under their agreement with the USDA, the Holestines and other ranchers are prohibited from raising elk in the future.
So instead of retiring, Larry, 53, has had to take another job.
State agriculture officials said all but two of the ranchers in the endemic area are participating in the program. One of the holdouts is Ric Hansen, who said the $ 240,000 buyout offer tendered by the USDA represents less than half of his investment in his 105 elk.
'I've got $ 1,000 straws of semen in those cows,' he said. 'Those are high-quality animals. The buyout doesn't come close to compensating us.'
Hansen said he'd just arranged to sell 10 animals to an Idaho rancher last fall when the outbreak erupted on other Colorado ranches. Idaho then closed its borders.
With healthy herds on two ranches and double fences to keep wild game away, Hansen is going to ride it out.
But it's a risk: the buyout program is a one-time offer. After that, Hansen's on his own.
'It's a very expensive decision,' he said. 'Yeah, I'm concerned it might come back to bite me. But I just don't see a reason for the kill-off.'
Hansen thinks it would be less expensive to double-fence healthy ranches, rather than running them out of business.
'I paid about $ 20,000 for that extra fence,' he said. 'That's a lot less than they offered for indemnification.'
Like many affected ranchers, the Holestines blame the Colorado Division of Wildlife for their predicament, and the buyout seems destined to harden ill feelings against the agency. The DOW 'created the problem,' said Deborah, by releasing infected animals from a Fort Collins research facility in the 1960s. It's an allegation that's repeated with fervent belief - but little factual support - by elk ranchers who say the wildlife agency is blaming them for the spread of the disease.
While chronic wasting disease was first recognized at the research station in 1967, there's no clear proof where it came from. The fact that the disease exists across 15,000 square miles of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska suggests it started somewhere else, and that wild animals captured for study brought the disease to the research facility, according to CWD researchers.
But many of the northeastern ranchers now caught up in the tragedy were warned not to get into the business by the division. Since 1995, the agency has routinely issued letters recommending against elk ranching in the endemic area.
All but two of the 49 CWD cases identified in last year's outbreak were linked to one ranch in Stoneham. But the cases at TNT ranch in Longmont were not.
Instead, disease experts theorize the ranch was infected by a wild elk that died on the property.
USDA officials fear that if it happened once, it could happen again. That's why they granted a request by Colorado officials to buy out infected ranches in the endemic area.
'As long as the infection is in the wild, there's always the risk of it jumping to captive herds,' said Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders' Association. 'It's possible some of the ranches are infected now. We just don't know.'
No evidence exists that chronic wasting disease has ever infected a human, but there's no proof it can't. Health officials remain wary because a variant of CWD has killed more than 120 Europeans who ate tainted British beef.