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Vet criticizes rancher at center of wasting disease concerns

October 21, 2001 Associated Press
A Stoneham rancher at the center of the latest spread of chronic wasting disease allegedly ignored livestock regulations designed to detect the fatal brain disease.

Craig McConnell, the owner of the Elk Echo ranch east of Sterling, failed to report elk that died on his farm this summer and could lose his license, state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said Friday. McConnell's ranch has been under quarantine for the disease for more than a year. The rancher also did not alert Cunningham to a sick cow elk during a September inspection that was prompted by the wasting-disease death of an elk he sold to a Del Norte rancher, Cunningham said.

The state relies on ranchers to help it track domestic elk deaths and to provide brain samples for analysis.

"I don't have to notify him if an animal is sick," McConnell said. "That's not part of the (state CWD) program. It's only when they die."

McConnell said he discovered one of the dead elk just days before Cunningham's visit. The other died more than a year ago, he said.

He also said the Colorado Division of Wildlife is to blame for the epidemic because the disease was first found in wild deer.

So far, six Colorado elk ranches and close to 1,600 animals have been quarantined because of links to Elk Echo.

State officials are concerned because two infected ranches lie near Western Slope game herds. Hunting and wildlife tourism add $3 billion to the Colorado economy each year.

Colorado officials have begun euthanizing 148 elk seized from 40 ranches that have been exposed to the disease.

In retrospect, Cunningham said, his office probably should have further inspected two pneumonia cases McConnell reported in 1997 and a dozen elk reported dead of lightning strikes from May 1995 to July 1998.

"The problem is that - to a fault - the regulations are very supportive and too accommodating of the industry," said Mike Miller, a veterinarian with the Division of Wildlife, which for years has said game farms are a breeding ground for disease.

However, elk ranchers claim wildlife officials failed to aggressively de-populate infected wild herds and even gave away infected research elk.

CWD was first identified in 1967. Within the past 10 years, it has infected elk ranches in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

Elk ranchers sell breeding stock, meat, velvet antlers and in some cases, allow fee shooting. Elk ranches in Canada and the United States are estimated to be worth $1 billion, including land, buildings, the value of the elk and associated revenue.


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