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Chronic Wasting Disease Hurts Elk Industry in Colorado

February 19, 2002 The Gazette (Colorado Springs) by Bryan Oller
There's a sense of uncertainty at the Silverheels Ranch -- in the pens and in the ranch house.

Jim Benes raises Rocky Mountain elk at the scenic ranch snuggled against aspen-flecked mountains at the foot of Red Mountain Pass east of Fairplay.

Last week, the dominant bull in Benes' herd tangled with one of the 23 other males penned together and broke off half of his soaring left antler. That day, the bull lost his dominance over the herd, and other bulls began jockeying for leadership.

And Jim Benes lost money. "It was a $ 100 rack until yesterday," the rancher said.

"It's totally useless now ... idiot."

Benes isn't the only elk rancher in Colorado confronting the unique -- and costly -- effects of domesticating a wild species. Chronic wasting disease, part of a family of mysterious infections that includes mad cow disease, has been found in several herds of domesticated elk in Colorado.

The discovery has been devastating to the 116 licensed elk ranchers and to their herds. So far, 320 elk have been killed and incinerated, a number that will climb to 1,500 in a month, about a tenth of the 16,000 domesticated elk in the state.

An elk ranch in northeastern Colorado, where it's thought the infection started and was spread by the sale of elk to other ranches, has stopped operating and won't reopen.

Elk on nine ranches have been quarantined.

Demand for elk meat has dropped drastically, and South Korea, the major market for velvet antlers for medicinal potions, has imposed a ban on U.S. elk byproducts.

Colorado has banned the importation of live elk from out-of-state breeders and won't allow in-state breeders to sell their elk outside the state unless the herd has been under medical surveillance for five years.

Suddenly, Colorado's elk-breeding industry, one of the largest in the country, is in danger of losing its dominance, much like bull No. 5 in Jim Benes' big pen.

In the coming year, if chronic wasting disease spreads to wild elk and deer, the survival of the industry will be at stake, a Department of Agriculture official said.

"The potential for this disease destroying the industry is very real," said Jim Miller, director of policy and communications for the state agency, which regulates elk breeders.

"The devastating blow would be to find a hopscotch effect in the wild population. If a wild animal in Del Norte (site of another infected herd) would be shot by a hunter and came back positive for wasting disease, we would be facing a very, very serious situation of spreading the disease through elk ranching. We cannot tolerate that ever happening."

Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association, fervently hopes that doesn't happen. He wants to believe the slaughter of elk herds in which wasting disease has been found will put a stop to the spread of the disease and the bad press.

He said the industry, which started to take off about 15 years ago, has been a godsend to ranchers trying to wring a living from the land.

Elk can be raised on fewer acres than required for cows. They eat less than cows. They're immune to the cold and are generally healthy animals, requiring only basic feed and vaccinations. An enterprising rancher can make money off meat, breeding, antlers -- and sport.

Walker is one of about a dozen elk breeders licensed to bring in hunters to shoot elk on his ranch near Penrose.

Unofficially, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has never been wild about the domesticated elk industry.

The emergence of chronic wasting disease is confirmation of its worst fears, and the agency has been strongly urging greater oversight of the business by the Agriculture Department. It recently proposed -- and agriculture officials agreed -- to impose a rule that, by next year, will prohibit the intrastate transfer of elk unless the animals have been monitored for five years for possible exposure to chronic wasting disease.

It is pushing -- so far unsuccessfully -- for stringent fencing requirements. Elk ranches now are required to enclose their animals behind 8-foot fences. But there have been a number of escapes of elk into the wild, and the wildlife agency wants ranchers to have double sets of fences.

The Wildlife Division, in fact, is using state money to do what elk ranchers should be doing, spokesman Todd Malmsbury said. The agency spent $ 30,000 to build a second fence at an elk ranch at Del Norte, where 330 elk were recently destroyed when wasting disease was found in the herd. The agency expects it will have to spend another $ 100,000 to construct a fence around an elk ranch in northeast Colorado, the site of another outbreak.

The wildlife agency has had to kill more than 160 deer and a handful of elk found in the wild around both elk operations for fear they may have contracted the disease by nuzzling against ranch fences.

Malmsbury said the Agriculture Department and the elk industry need to do a better job of monitoring domesticated elk herds for disease and making sure elk don't escape into the wild, which he said has happened too often.

Miller acknowledged his agency fell down on the job in the late 1990s, inadvertently allowing the disease to escape across the state. Chronic wasting disease was discovered in a large elk ranch near Stoneham.

The agency was told portions of the herds were kept separated, so it allowed some elk deemed to be at low risk of exposure to be sold to another ranch. It turned out the agency hadn't been told the whole truth, and there was more co-mingling of the elk herd than it thought.

The animals allowed to be transferred had the disease and soon infected other herds as the elk were sold and traded among ranchers.

Rancher Jim Benes isn't sure where this bureaucratic angst and wrangling leaves him. He has his elk safely behind two fences, and there's no indication he has any infected animals. All he knows is he's feeding 24 bulls and 41 cows that have little value as long as the spectre of chronic wasting disease hangs over the Colorado elk industry.

CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE

Chronic wasting disease is part of a family of diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a disease of the brain and central nervous system that also afflicts mule and white-tailed deer. Other forms of the disease include scrapie, widely found in sheep; mad cow disease, found in cattle; and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, found in humans.

Studies have not found it can be transmitted to humans.

Elk and deer affected by the disease become listless, lack coordination, lose weight, suffer depression, exhibit unusual behavior, become paralyzed and die.

It is not understood how the disease is transmitted. It is thought it can be transmitted through saliva, feces or urine. Once ingested, the disease has an incubation period of 16-30 months.

The disease is thought to have existed in the wild for at least a few hundred years. Elk breeders think the disease was introduced inadvertently into domesticated elk by Colorado Division of Wildlife researchers working in a Colorado State University lab near Fort Collins more than 30 years ago.

Chronic wasting disease is present in northern Colorado from Fort Collins north to Wyoming and east along the Platte River to Nebraska. As many as 13 percent of elk and deer in that area are thought to be afflicted with the disease. Intense surveillance by the Division of

Wildlife has shown the disease has not spread beyond the boundaries of that area.

-- Sources: North American Elk Breeders Association and the Colorado Division of Wildlife

FACTS ABOUT ELK

Mature bulls average 800 to 1,100 pounds, stand 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches tall and are 7 to 8 years old.

Antlers fall off in March and regrow every year.

Mature cows are 3 to 4 years old, average 550 to 600 pounds and stand 4 feet to 5 feet tall. They do not grow antlers.

The breeding season, or rut, runs from late August to late October, during which a bull will gather a group of females and keep other males away. The bulls compete for dominance by bugling, sparring and chasing would-be competitors away.

Calves are born in May or June. Covered with spots when born, they develop brown coats in about six months.


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