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Chronic wasting disease is devastating elk farming

January 24, 2002 CBC TV
GUEST: BOB KIRKPATRICK, Elk Farmer; DOUG MANN, Veterinarian; PAT MCKINNON, Hunter; WOMAN, Agrivision Livestock Show; UNIDENTIFIED, Auctioneer

ANCHORS: REG SHERREN

BODY: REG SHERREN: Hi. I'm Reg Sherren, and welcome to Country Canada. There's a battle being waged by the modern livestock farmer here in Saskatchewan. The enemy, from the same family as mad cow, a disease that is every bit as deadly. It's called CWD, or chronic wasting disease, and it has devastated the elk farming industry in Canada. Here on the front lines they're fighting for survival, and offering a glimpse into the way all livestock operations may have to change in the future.

BOB KIRKPATRICK: We have to have the strictest, strongest surveillance program that there is. So we have to be better than anyone else because we've had the problem. The problem with chronic wasting is nobody knows how it spreads. Nobody can tell you for sure why we even have it here.

SHERREN: These days things are pretty quiet on Bob Kirkpatrick's farm in southwestn Saskatchewan. For Kirkpatrick and other elk producers in the province, the last few years have been deadly. BOB KIRKPATRICK: People had us... had us down and out. And we're... we're a tough group. We're not going to... we're not going to go down without a fight.

SHERREN: It all starts back in 1997, just as elk farming is riding a wave of financial success. Prairie farmers looking to diversify are willing to pay as much as $25,000 a head for elk. The markets are strong, not just for the meat but for the antler velvet. Then one day an animal takes sick on Bob Kirkpatrick's farm.

KIRKPATRICK: This was a three-year-old animal, and it hadn't been here very long, and it just... it wasn't acting right. It was staying away from the group, it wasn't coming to the feed truck when I fed. Normally the elk come running to the truck when they... when they see me come in. This one was staying away. He just kind of had his head down, had a... a depressed look about it. So I called the vet in, we... he came out to have a look at him. By this time he'd lost weight, and the animal actually died while the vet was here. We were taking some blood samples.

SHERREN: The carcass is sent here, to Saskatoon's Prairie Diagnostic Laboratories. After dissecting and analyzing the brain it's discovered the animal died from chronic wasting disease, or CWD. It's the same family of illness as mad cow disease, eating holes in the brains of elk and deer until they drop dead. Mad cow disease, once though to be limited to just cattle, has now infected and killed over 80 people so far. It's not known how CWD spreads, how it got here in the first place, or if it can infect other species like cattle or even humans. Those unknowns mark the beginning of disaster for Saskatchewan's elk producers.

KIRKPATRICK: Because this is a disease that we don't know a lot about, or didn't know a lot about... we're learning a lot about it right now... there was only one approach to take.

SHERREN: The strategy is dramatic: kill every domesticated elk on any Saskatchewan farm where CWD is present. Over four years 7409 elk are destroyed, one quarter of the province's domesticated herd. Of those, 193 test positive for chronic wasting disease. The Saskatchewan government spends $30 million on testing and compensation. After two animals die from CWD on Kirkpatrick's farm, the rest of his herd, 64 elk, are destroyed. No others are found to have the disease.

KIRKPATRICK: Being that I was the first on the list to have any animals put down, it was quite devastating. I didn't know if I was going to be singled out forever, didn't know if I'd ever be able to have animals back on my property again, so it was devastating.

SHERREN: Sales for any elk products from Saskatchewan take a nose dive. The lucrative Asian market, where consumers buy not only the meat but antler velvet to use as an aphrodisiac, ban all Canadian products.

KIRKPATRICK: Right here is my antler from two years ago, or from last year. There's roughly a thousand pounds of antler in here.

SHERREN: Before CWD these racks were worth close to $110,000. Now a freezer full is worth barely $25,000.

KIRKPATRICK: I do have a big investment here. I mean, the fact that I got back into the business after my animals were all eradicated shows me anyway that... I do believe that this industry will come back.

SHERREN: What do you say to the average person that's looking at this and they're worried?

KIRKPATRICK: There's no science anywhere that proves that this disease is transmissible to other species... to cattle, to buffalo, to humans.

SHERREN: But the sad reality is Kirkpatrick knows there's no way to guarantee it doesn't. What they are fairly sure of is that all the domesticated elk in the province that tested positive came from just one source, a farm near Lloydminster. And all of those elk were originally imported from the United States, where CWD is now a problem in at least five states. There are people that feel elk shouldn't be domesticated, shouldn't be raised behind fences. What do you say to those people?

KIRKPATRICK: I mean, there's problems in any other livestock industry. There's disease problems in cattle, there's disease problems in pigs, and you know, we haven't eliminated any of those livestock businesses. We've just dealt with the problems.

SHERREN: But those same critics are also saying that having this industry is actually contributing to the spread of the disease.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, as I mentioned before, so far every case of chronic wasting disease relates back to one herd contained behind a fence, and we've taken these positive steps to eradicate that.

SHERREN: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has now given Saskatchewan elk producers the green light to start repopulating their farms. Country Canada has learned, however, the three farms are still considered highly contaminated and are still banned from having livestock. The reason: uncertainty about whether chronic wasting disease still lingers in the soil, even after animals are removed.

KIRKPATRICK: I went through quite a clean-up procedure here after... after the disease issue, after all my animals were gone. You know, they've done lots of tests trying to actually infect cattle and other animals, and have had no success at this point. So no, I'm not worried about it. The fact that we can say every animal that's on any farm can be traced back to where it comes from... If an animal's been moved to five different farms in ten years, we have a record of that. So that's how we could find these particular animals and trace them out. That's why we didn't have to kill every animal in the province.

SHERREN: For veterinarian Doug Mann, it's what's not known about diseases like chronic wasting that should compel all livestock producers in Canada to adopt the strict tracing rules the elk industry is now using.

DOUG MANN: The trace-back system is imperative to this country. With chronic wasting, we didn't know much about this problem five, ten years ago for sure, and... and we don't know what is going to be happening in the future with, say, beef cattle, for instance. So in order to be prepared for these what-if scenarios, we have to have a system in place where we can basically track the animal from where it was originally born to the point where it was originally slaughtered.

SHERREN: The Saskatchewan government isn't taking any chances either.

PAT MCKINNON: Lots of fresh tracks here.

SHERREN: This year it's giving extra permits to hunters like Pat McKinnon and his son to shoot wild deer and elk in the province. It's still trying to find out just how far in the wild CWD may have spread, so the heads are turned in for testing.

MCKINNON: We're concerned about the quality of our hunting (inaudible)... Like, this is our back yard here. It's easy for us just to jump in the truck and, you know, after... you know, 3:00 in the afternoon, go for a hunt. Kids come home from school and away they go, Saturdays away they go. So, I mean, if our hunting's ruined here for years, it changes things for us. Now, you see that really, really, really tall hill, way on the horizon, straight on the horizon? See, if you don't know how it spreads... will it... will it stay in the soil, which is a possibility. So if you have a major depopulation and it's still in the soil, and you let your numbers come back, then you still have a problem.

SHERREN: McKinnon and his son, like all Sasketchewan hunters, are advised to use rubber gloves when handling wild deer or elk carcasses. So far 4700 heads have been turned in for testing. CWD turned up in two mule deer. So far no cases have been uncovered in wild elk. As the government comes to grip with the disease, the industry has to come to grips with its new reputation. It used to be one of the darlings of Agrivision, western Canada's largest livestock show. This is where breeders showcase their best. The Saskatchewan Elk Breeders Association is here too.

UNIDENTIFIED: They want to see... see the elks.

SHERREN: Their booth and their brochures are on display, but not their animals. Live elk aren't allows at Agrivision. But for Bob Kirkpatrick, who's now the association's president, some presence is better than no presence.

KIRKPATRICK: Well, it's important for us to be here. The whole world's watching. Now, we're not scared of our disease problems. We faced them head-on.

AUCTIONEER: Alright, (inaudible)... 1000, 1050. Who's going to buy (inaudible)...

SHERREN: So, while most other livestock come and go through Agrivision's auction gate...

AUCTIONEER: Sold the bull, 1000 (inaudible)... 35, 35 (inaudible)...

SHERREN: ...the Saskatchewan Elk Breeders Association holds the first-ever video auction, complete with bids over the Internet.

AUCTIONEER: (inaudible)... now 50, 650 (inaudible)... 75 (inaudible)...

SHERREN: But prices are way down, a fraction of what they once were. The top animal brings just $5000. People are nervous, but Bob Kirkpatrick isn't one of them.

AUCTIONEER: 1600, now 50, $1650...

KIRKPATRICK: The lower prices may be a good thing because it allows new people to get in. And... and when prices were at $25,000 an animal it was awful tough for new people to get in. This is an opportunity, and I think people that realize that are taking advantage of if.

SHERREN: If enthusiasm could beat the problem, the battle with CWD would be over. But it's not. Just last week, the latest blow: another dead animal, another confirmed case of chronic wasting disease, this one on a farm near Prince Albert. Officials are now examining whether that farmer will have to destroy all 350 elk in his operation.


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