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Officials to kill 350 elk at ranch

February 8, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
Workers set up pens and an incinerator Thursday to prepare for Colorado's first on-site elk kill in the battle against deadly chronic wasting disease.

About a dozen state and federal officials descended on a private elk farm - Rancho de Anta Grande - in the San Luis Valley to begin the gruesome task of euthanizing, then cremating 350 quarantined elk. All have the misfortune of living on a ranch where one animal, last year, turned up positive for the disease.

Reporters were permitted to view preparations, but state officials won't permit access to the process today, when elk will be herded into pens, tranquilized and killed so their heads can be removed, allowing scientists to conduct brain tests for the illness. The carcasses will be burned using a $36,000 device that blows air at 165 mph and produces temperatures over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Such heat insures destruction of the mutant protein - called prions - believed to spark a disease that leaves microscopic holes in the brains of infected animals.

As workers set up the site, elk breeder Rich Forrest stood by downcast, saddened by a disease that is putting his 5-year-old elk ranching company, and his pride and joy, out of business.

"It's a traumatic experience for all involved," Forrest said. "I don't even want to watch. These aren't pets, but I spent years breeding them, years breeding their mellowness and gentleness."

Forrest isn't alone in his plight. The elk kill beginning today is the first of three planned for nine Colorado elk ranches, most in northeast Colorado. In all, state and federal department of agricultural workers will put down roughly 1,500 elk in an effort to control CWD's spread.

The slaughter is considered a disaster to Colorado's elk breeding industry, one of the largest in the United States with about 150 commercial herds. Though scientists believe the disease has existed in the wild for decades, it didn't start showing up in captive herds until the mid 1990s.

Since then, with the animals passing between ranches in and out of Colorado, the disease has turned up in 16 captive herds in five Western states and Saskatchewan. The source of the disease on Forrest's ranch was an elk traced back to a captive herd at Stoneham, in northeast Colorado.

Private and public officials have pointed fingers at each other, trying to pin responsibility on rogue ranchers, inept regulators or wild animals some believe could have infected the captive ones. The truth is, no one is certain where the disease began and which animals passed it to which.

Last fall, state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham imposed a 30 day ban on transferring captive elk within the state of Colorado until workers could determine which ranches needed to be quarantined and "depopulated."

The Colorado Captive Wildlife and Alternative Livestock board voted to destroy Forrest's herd first because it is outside of the endemic area and they wanted to prevent the spread of the disease to wildlife in Southern Colorado.

"This isn't an easy process," said Cunningham, who toured the site Thursday afternoon and will assist in the week long elk killing ordeal. "For veterinarians and people who care for animals it's difficult."

Cunningham said that all involved - ranch owners, their families and government workers - will be provided access to counseling if they request it.

There's only one small bright spot for Forrest; he'll recoup some of his financial losses through a federal appropriation that will pay him and other elk ranchers in the same fix up to $3,000 for each animal.

Still, that won't cover the entire market value of the herd, Forrest said, and it doesn't come close to covering his investment in the land, fencing and numerous other expenses.

This elk killing isn't the first. Late last year, officials shipped 158 elk from several ranches around Colorado to a Fort Collins facility, where they were killed and tested. Four of those animals from two ranches tested positive for the disease.

INFOBOX

Disposing of an infected elk herd

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is "depopulating" an elk ranch in Del Norte as part of the effort to contain chronic wasting disease. Beginning today state workers will destroy and incinerate roughly 350 captive elk.

The average bull (male) elk is 5 feet high at the shoulders and weighs between 700 and 1,100 pounds.

1. Elk are herded into pens. They are sedated and euthanized.

2. The heads are removed to harvest the elk's brain stem, lymph nodes and reproductive organs (if the elk is pregnant). These are sent to laboratories to test for chronic wasting disease.

3. The carcasses and heads are incinerated in a large pit. The ash is then removed to a yet to be determined location

The machine uses high-velocity air to form a ceiling over the pit. The air turbulence also increases the oxygen levels in the pit, raising the temperature to as much as 2,800 degrees.

The machine is set back approximately 36 feet for safety.

SOURCE: Air Burners LLC

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


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