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State vet criticizes elk ranch; outbreak of disease requires purchase of costly, high-powered animal incinerator

October 5, 2001 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Lou Kilzer
If a Colorado ranch had taken the advice of state officials, the outbreak of a fatal neurological disease in elk might have been contained without the forced destruction of more than 1,600 animals, state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said Thursday.

But with the spread of chronic wasting disease to other elk farms from Elk Echo Ranch, the state is buying a $36,000 incinerator to cremate affected herds starting in about two weeks.

Officials say the incinerator, which blows air heated to 1,800 to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit at 165 mph into a trench, can neutralize the infectious agents called prions that cause the disease.

Research shows it takes such extreme conditions to disable the deadly prions. In one experiment, prions heated for 15 minutes at more than 1,100 degrees were still able to infect five of 35 hamsters. The state will put a chemical compound on the ashes to further neutralize the prions.

In addition to the 70 to 80 animals a day to be cremated, the state plans to scrape two inches of soil and organic matter from the pens where the animals were kept and incinerate that as well. More than 60 acres will be affected.

The incinerations would take from a few weeks to more than a month, Department of Agriculture veterinarian Keith Roehr said.

Only seven Colorado elk have died from chronic wasting disease, but the chance that captive herds could become breeding grounds of CWD prompts the need for strong action, Cunningham said.

"If this continues, the producers in Colorado are out of business," Cunningham told the Colorado Agricultural Commission.

The commission Thursday unanimously passed emergency rules to prevent more CWD cases from coming to Colorado. Animals will be observed for at least 36 months prior to being admitted to Colorado, and any animal dying during that period will be examined for evidence of CWD.

In strong words after the vote, Cunningham told reporters that after a CWD case was suspected at the Elk Echo Ranch in Stoneham, he had worked out a plan to have the 40-acre pen closed and never used again.

For some reason, he said, the pen was reused and CWD cases arose.

Craig McConnell, owner of Elk Echo, disagreed. "That's not true at all," he said.

He said Cunningham had been at his ranch in June 2000 and had suggested that he close pen No. 1. He said he asked the state veterinarian to write it down so he could ask for compensation. Cunningham declined, he said.

Even so, he put elk in pen No. 1 once for a week. However, he said, his hired hand actually controlled the pen. "I don't know if he even knew not to use it," McConnell said.

Elk from Elk Echo were later exported to three other elk farms at which cases of CWD were detected or suspected.

More than 450 animals were then shipped to 15 or more other states. Some of those states have banned elk imports from Colorado and quarantined the elk sent from the state.

Commission members and state officials said they worry about news reports of the planned cremations. Already, national publicity about the elk issue has prompted calls from hunters worried about coming to Colorado.

CWD first was noticed in 1967 at a Division of Wildlife closed research facility near Fort Collins. A decade later, it wasclassified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, or TSE.

In humans, classical TSE, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, affects about one in a million people, mostly elderly. Like all TSEs, Creutzfeldt-Jakob attacks the brain, filling it with microscopic holes. The disease produces dementia and is invariably fatal.

In 1986, the bovine form of the disease, called BSE, was discovered in British cows. Though there was public alarm, the British government assured the public that there was no evidence that the disease could jump the "species barrier" and infect humans. But by 1996, the government said it had evidence of 10 cases of BSE causing a disease in humans.

The new malady was named new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD.

The finding that eating a meat product could kill humans set off a mad cow scare. More than 4.5 million British cattle were slaughtered to reduce risk. About 180,000 of them actually had BSE.

To date, 112 mostly young people have died from the new disease, and estimates of how many eventually will perish vary widely.


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