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1,000 more elk may die

March 8, 2002 Rocky Mountain News by Todd Hartman
The state veterinarian wants to kill off the last of about 1,000 captive elk remaining in northeastern Colorado's chronic wasting disease endemic area.

Wayne Cunningham formally requested permission this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to indemnify elk ranchers in the region up to $3,000 per animal. The reasoning: It's next to impossible to market elk from the area, since some may have been exposed to CWD via infected wild deer or elk. "(Elk producers) have asked for it, actually," Cunningham said. "Greater than 90 percent of producers in that endemic area would like to be indemnified."

Thursday, about 30 state and federal workers finished off a two-week slaughter of more than 900 captive elk on a ranch in Stoneham - the largest "depopulation" since state agriculture officials decided to wipe out exposed herds to contain the disease.

"I feel very comfortable in saying we have CWD under control and eradicated," from Colorado's captive elk herds, Cunningham said. "Those producers located in the endemic area continue to be at risk, of course."

In all, agriculture workers have killed off 1,498 captive elk from nine Colorado ranches, including two facilities outside the infected region around Fort Collins, Greeley and along the South Platte River. Federal indemnity money has provided those ranchers nearly $3 million to cover the market value of the animals.

So far, postmortem tests reveal just two animals from a captive herd of 330 in the San Luis Valley were carrying the disease. Testing isn't completed on a second herd of about 200 animals in a North Park herd, but two-thirds of the way through, none has tested positive. Testing of the 900-plus elk killed at Stoneham in northeastern Colorado will take weeks.

If the USDA grants Cunningham's request to compensate for additional elk kills in the endemic area - and Cunningham believes the agency is willing to consider it - the number of captive elk slaughtered to contain CWD in Colorado will approach 2,500.

Officials are forced to kill the animals because the only accepted method of confirming the presence of the disease is through analysis of brain tissue. Tonsil tests are reliable for deer, but not for elk, Cunningham said.

In another development Thursday, Cunningham said Nebraska will truck 78 animal carcasses from an exposed herd to the Stoneham site, where workers will incinerate them.

The process requires a large open pit and an air-blowing device that heats the fire to at least 2,500 degrees, hot enough to destroy the infectious agent many scientists believe cause CWD.

Now, state and federal agriculture officials must start wrestling with another question: which, if any, of the emptied elk ranches will be permitted to re-supply, an issue that probably only applies to the two affected ranches outside the endemic area.

That analysis will start today, Cunningham said. Factors playing into the decision will be how many, if any, animals had the disease, and whether infected elk showed outward signs of the sickness. Ranches allowed to repopulate may also have to decontaminate their facilities, he said.

NOTES: Contact Todd Hartman at (303) 892-5048 or hartmant@RockyMountainNews.com.

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