Science, cowboy culture in High Plains showdown over elk version of mad cow disease
Search OCA
Get Local!

Science, cowboy culture in High Plains showdown over elk version of mad cow disease

March 16, 2002 The Associated Press by Joseph B. Verrengia
Every time the backhoe bites into the hard, dry prairie of the All American Antler Ranch, Craig McConnell winces as if the iron claw was ripping open his own belly.

Seven hundred tawny elk cluster beneath a blue horizon that seems to reach into forever, like the ocean. The animals fidget as the machine growls and the hole grows deeper. Wider.

McConnell takes a blind step backward and stumbles against bundles of fenceposts.

Soon the posts will become the crackling pyre on which McConnell's herd and his own celebrity as Colorado's "Mr. Elk" - you can read it on the license plates on his enormous truck - will be torched by government farm agents. "They're digging a big grave," McConnell shouts into a howling wind that blasts his face with grit and diesel. "I'm losing my livelihood today - $4 million down into that hole."

At the AAA, it's a showdown between modern science and the legacy of the American West. All because of the latest version of mad cow disease - chronic wasting disease, CWD, which strikes deer and elk instead of cattle.

Although mad cow disease has not been seen in the United States, CWD was first described 25 years ago. Once a campfire topic among hunters, it's become a "front-burner" public health concern, experts say, as demand grows for lean game meat and Asian folk medicines made with antler velvet.

Chronic wasting disease is not known to jump from deer and elk to cattle or people. But scientists say that cannot be ruled out. Until the 1980s, no one thought mad cow disease could strike people either.

McConnell acknowledges losing one animal to CWD. But state officials say they have traced at least five sickened animals to his ranch and they believe he tried to hide other CWD evidence - a suggestion he hotly denies.

He has shipped elk to breeders as far east as Pennsylvania, and those animals are being traced, and if necessary, eliminated.

"It's very important that we eradicate it right here, or it's likely to spread," says Colorado assistant state veterinarian Keith Roehr, who supervises the dirty work.

State veterinarians will euthanize and incinerate elk rounded up from McConnell's four quarantined ranches. Crews already have carried out this scorched earth policy at two other sites in Colorado. Ultimately, 1,500 farm elk from seven ranches will be killed and burned like hundreds of thousands of cattle in Europe, 6,000 miles away.

There, the beef industry has been devastated by mad cow - bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. More than 100 people have been diagnosed with the incurable human form of it, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. They had eaten tainted beef.

Recently, mad cow turned up in Japan, reigniting beef fears.

But the biggest threat in this country at the moment is from wild deer, with an estimated 15 percent infected. Government biologists have begun shooting thousands of deer in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas. This winter, CWD was detected in three deer in Wisconsin, the first wild cases to jump the Misssissippi River.

About 1 percent of wild elk are infected. Last week, biologists at Rocky Mountain National Park, where viewing wildlife up close is a big draw for tourists, confirmed that one of the park's 3,000 elk had died of CWD. Tests show 5 percent of the park's mule deer are infected, too.

Ranch elk could be at even higher risk. In the last five years, CWD has popped up at 15 elk ranches in five states and Saskatchewan, Canada.

All spongiform diseases incubate for many years and display wretched symptoms: tiny holes in the brain, emaciation, slobbering and wobbling, then death.

Today's feedlots concentrate thousands of animals, and interstate trucking spreads infectious agents in hours. Left unchecked, even a slow-acting spongiform disease could become a biological prairie fire, experts fear.

There is no economical live test for it. So all exposed animals are killed as a precaution, even though they appear healthy.

On the McConnell ranch, the killing hole is as large as a house foundation.

Behind a white privacy curtain, the elk are lethally injected, then beheaded for brain samples. The remains are cremated. Bellows fan the flames to 2,500 degrees, creating a portable blast furnace that could forge steel.

"Will it be smoky? Will it smell?" asks McConnell's wife, Noreen. As petite as her husband is lanky, she favors full denim skirts and sweeps her long brown hair into a bun.

While her husband paces, she extends a plate of brownies - "I bake when I'm nervous" - and pours iced tea. Her hospitality can't defuse the tension.

"I expect that it will be," Roehr replies, stroking his floppy brown mustache.

"We can euthanize 100 animals a day. But we can't eliminate them that quickly. The equipment can't keep up."

---

It's hard to imagine the AAA being the epicenter of anything.

The ranch is 25 miles from the last irrigation pivot, six miles from the nearest pavement. It's sandy, lonesome country marked by a few strands of barbed wire and "No Trespassing" signs painted on bald tires.

For thousands of years, these High Plains belonged to bison and the Indians who followed them.

Immigrant farmers like Noreen's forebears busted the sod with iron plows. But this is no Iowa; 13 inches of rain is normal.

Once furrowed, the life just drained from the prairie. Dust storms and grasshoppers chased off homesteaders. The railroads abandoned spur lines, and towns like Stoneham were swallowed by the silence.

McConnell left as a young geologist to seek his fortune in the Alaska oilfields. He returned in the 1980s to punch cattle.

Logical choice. Nearby billboards remind drowsy drivers that "Nothing Satisfies Like Beef!"

Nationwide, it's a $50 billion industry with cattle outnumbering ranched elk 1,000-to-1. For 96 straight Januarys, Denver has hosted the Super Bowl of livestock auctions; the grand champion steer is primped like a supermodel to command six-figure bids.

Decades after the Dust Bowl, however, this marginal land hasn't become any more forgiving.

By 1992, a struggling McConnell bought five breeding elk.

It was ecologically sensible. Elk are native Plains animals; they'll eat spiny weeds that cattle wouldn't consider. Soon McConnell was grossing $300 an acre. His elk herd swelled.

Noreen turned their home into a dude ranch. The guestbook bulged with the compliments of visitors - and investors - from 49 states and 27 countries.

The McConnells built a two-story headquarters with a family apartment and an indoor auction stage. One sale drew 350 bidders, more than twice the population of Stoneham.

Even better, elk enabled the McConnells to live as cowboys.

McConnell and his eldest son, Brandon, packed revolvers to shoot rattlesnakes as they strung miles of tall fence. Sometimes they forgot their manners and wore their holsters at the dinner table, astonishing citified guests.

"I nearly wore out Brandon's shoulder driving 60 fenceposts an hour," McConnell recalled. "No wonder he left for fiber optics."

---

What brought it all crashing down?

A Jekyll-and-Hyde protein called a prion, invisible to all but an electron microscope.

It was considered heresy in 1982 when prions were suggested as the villain behind spongiform diseases. Nobody knows exactly what prions do. They vary slightly between species; a human prion differs by 30 amino acids from a cow prion.

When a prion goes bad, it adopts a twisted shape that seems to control the pace of infection and the rate of brain changes.

How prions spread remains a mystery. Unlike bacteria or viruses, prions do not appear to have their own genetic material.

Increasingly, scientists believe a mutant prion acts as a template that other prions mimic. Disinfectants and microwaves won't kill them, and they aren't digested.

"Science does not have an all-knowing grasp on the problem," said Dorothy Preslar of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

Chronic wasting disease was identified in 1977 when graduate student Elizabeth Williams saw tiny holes in brain samples from deer and elk that looked suspiciously like scrapie in sheep. "When we heard about prions later on, it was obvious," she said.

Today, Williams diagnoses animal diseases for the Wyoming state veterinary laboratory in Laramie. The squat, octagonal blockhouse has been encircled by razor wire since the anthrax attacks last fall.

Inside, Williams' dark, narrow office is dominated by a large painting of a vulture pecking at a meaty buffalo skull. For added realism, pranksters glue dead flies to the artwork.

Under 400x magnification, a slide of infected deer brain shows clumps of abnormal proteins and tiny holes amid healthy cells.

"This animal probably was quite ill," Williams says. "They develop these characteristics late in the incubation."

It's a necessary chore that distracts her from more troublesome outbreaks, like E. coli and salmonella. But working the killing hole would be worse.

"Nobody likes killing healthy animals," she says.

Where did it start? Some believe CWD is endemic. Or, it might've been sparked during a nutritional study by Colorado biologists in the late 1960s in which sheep were penned with deer. Three dozen deer died, while others were returned to the wild or sold to zoos.

Critics point out that interspecies transmission is difficult. Mad cow and the human version, it is believed, occurred after infected carcasses were used in livestock feed.

The federal government has set aside $12.5 million for CWD losses. McConnell said he is fighting for "100 percent compensation" and calculates his share to be at least $3.2 million.

His ranch must remain CWD-free for five years. He plans to reintroduce what didn't work here before - cattle. Or maybe bison.

"I've had the yak people calling," he adds. Would he then be called Mr. Yak? (Note: The license plate is available.)

Harder to replace will be a way of life. McConnell's youngest son, Brolin, planned to raise elk and extend the family's High Plains heritage.

"Now that's shot out of the saddle," Noreen McConnell said.

She started thinking about the cake for Brolin's upcoming 16th birthday, then paused to look out the window at the backhoe working the hole.

Deeper. Wider.

"We're going ahead with the party," Noreen decided. "But I think I'll put a curtain over that window." Every time the backhoe bites into the hard, dry prairie of the All American Antler Ranch, Craig McConnell winces as if the iron claw was ripping open his own belly.

Seven hundred tawny elk cluster beneath a blue horizon that seems to reach into forever, like the ocean. The animals fidget as the machine growls and the hole grows deeper. Wider.

McConnell takes a blind step backward and stumbles against bundles of fenceposts.

Soon the posts will become the crackling pyre on which McConnell's herd and his own celebrity as Colorado's "Mr. Elk" - you can read it on the license plates on his enormous truck - will be torched by government farm agents. "They're digging a big grave," McConnell shouts into a howling wind that blasts his face with grit and diesel. "I'm losing my livelihood today - $4 million down into that hole."

At the AAA, it's a showdown between modern science and the legacy of the American West. All because of the latest version of mad cow disease - chronic wasting disease, CWD, which strikes deer and elk instead of cattle.

Although mad cow disease has not been seen in the United States, CWD was first described 25 years ago. Once a campfire topic among hunters, it's become a "front-burner" public health concern, experts say, as demand grows for lean game meat and Asian folk medicines made with antler velvet.

Chronic wasting disease is not known to jump from deer and elk to cattle or people. But scientists say that cannot be ruled out. Until the 1980s, no one thought mad cow disease could strike people either.

McConnell acknowledges losing one animal to CWD. But state officials say they have traced at least five sickened animals to his ranch and they believe he tried to hide other CWD evidence - a suggestion he hotly denies.

He has shipped elk to breeders as far east as Pennsylvania, and those animals are being traced, and if necessary, eliminated.

"It's very important that we eradicate it right here, or it's likely to spread," says Colorado assistant state veterinarian Keith Roehr, who supervises the dirty work.

State veterinarians will euthanize and incinerate elk rounded up from McConnell's four quarantined ranches. Crews already have carried out this scorched earth policy at two other sites in Colorado. Ultimately, 1,500 farm elk from seven ranches will be killed and burned like hundreds of thousands of cattle in Europe, 6,000 miles away.

There, the beef industry has been devastated by mad cow - bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. More than 100 people have been diagnosed with the incurable human form of it, variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease. They had eaten tainted beef.

Recently, mad cow turned up in Japan, reigniting beef fears.

But the biggest threat in this country at the moment is from wild deer, with an estimated 15 percent infected. Government biologists have begun shooting thousands of deer in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas. This winter, CWD was detected in three deer in Wisconsin, the first wild cases to jump the Misssissippi River.

About 1 percent of wild elk are infected. Last week, biologists at Rocky Mountain National Park, where viewing wildlife up close is a big draw for tourists, confirmed that one of the park's 3,000 elk had died of CWD. Tests show 5 percent of the park's mule deer are infected, too.

Ranch elk could be at even higher risk. In the last five years, CWD has popped up at 15 elk ranches in five states and Saskatchewan, Canada.

All spongiform diseases incubate for many years and display wretched symptoms: tiny holes in the brain, emaciation, slobbering and wobbling, then death.

Today's feedlots concentrate thousands of animals, and interstate trucking spreads infectious agents in hours. Left unchecked, even a slow-acting spongiform disease could become a biological prairie fire, experts fear.

There is no economical live test for it. So all exposed animals are killed as a precaution, even though they appear healthy.

On the McConnell ranch, the killing hole is as large as a house foundation.

Behind a white privacy curtain, the elk are lethally injected, then beheaded for brain samples. The remains are cremated. Bellows fan the flames to 2,500 degrees, creating a portable blast furnace that could forge steel.

"Will it be smoky? Will it smell?" asks McConnell's wife, Noreen. As petite as her husband is lanky, she favors full denim skirts and sweeps her long brown hair into a bun.

While her husband paces, she extends a plate of brownies - "I bake when I'm nervous" - and pours iced tea. Her hospitality can't defuse the tension.

"I expect that it will be," Roehr replies, stroking his floppy brown mustache.

"We can euthanize 100 animals a day. But we can't eliminate them that quickly. The equipment can't keep up."

---

It's hard to imagine the AAA being the epicenter of anything.

The ranch is 25 miles from the last irrigation pivot, six miles from the nearest pavement. It's sandy, lonesome country marked by a few strands of barbed wire and "No Trespassing" signs painted on bald tires.

For thousands of years, these High Plains belonged to bison and the Indians who followed them.

Immigrant farmers like Noreen's forebears busted the sod with iron plows. But this is no Iowa; 13 inches of rain is normal.

Once furrowed, the life just drained from the prairie. Dust storms and grasshoppers chased off homesteaders. The railroads abandoned spur lines, and towns like Stoneham were swallowed by the silence.

McConnell left as a young geologist to seek his fortune in the Alaska oilfields. He returned in the 1980s to punch cattle.

Logical choice. Nearby billboards remind drowsy drivers that "Nothing Satisfies Like Beef!"

Nationwide, it's a $50 billion industry with cattle outnumbering ranched elk 1,000-to-1. For 96 straight Januarys, Denver has hosted the Super Bowl of livestock auctions; the grand champion steer is primped like a supermodel to command six-figure bids.

Decades after the Dust Bowl, however, this marginal land hasn't become any more forgiving.

By 1992, a struggling McConnell bought five breeding elk.

It was ecologically sensible. Elk are native Plains animals; they'll eat spiny weeds that cattle wouldn't consider. Soon McConnell was grossing $300 an acre. His elk herd swelled.

Noreen turned their home into a dude ranch. The guestbook bulged with the compliments of visitors - and investors - from 49 states and 27 countries.

The McConnells built a two-story headquarters with a family apartment and an indoor auction stage. One sale drew 350 bidders, more than twice the population of Stoneham.

Even better, elk enabled the McConnells to live as cowboys.

McConnell and his eldest son, Brandon, packed revolvers to shoot rattlesnakes as they strung miles of tall fence. Sometimes they forgot their manners and wore their holsters at the dinner table, astonishing citified guests.

"I nearly wore out Brandon's shoulder driving 60 fenceposts an hour," McConnell recalled. "No wonder he left for fiber optics."

---

What brought it all crashing down?

A Jekyll-and-Hyde protein called a prion, invisible to all but an electron microscope.

It was considered heresy in 1982 when prions were suggested as the villain behind spongiform diseases. Nobody knows exactly what prions do. They vary slightly between species; a human prion differs by 30 amino acids from a cow prion.

When a prion goes bad, it adopts a twisted shape that seems to control the pace of infection and the rate of brain changes.

How prions spread remains a mystery. Unlike bacteria or viruses, prions do not appear to have their own genetic material.

Increasingly, scientists believe a mutant prion acts as a template that other prions mimic. Disinfectants and microwaves won't kill them, and they aren't digested.

"Science does not have an all-knowing grasp on the problem," said Dorothy Preslar of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

Chronic wasting disease was identified in 1977 when graduate student Elizabeth Williams saw tiny holes in brain samples from deer and elk that looked suspiciously like scrapie in sheep. "When we heard about prions later on, it was obvious," she said.

Today, Williams diagnoses animal diseases for the Wyoming state veterinary laboratory in Laramie. The squat, octagonal blockhouse has been encircled by razor wire since the anthrax attacks last fall.

Inside, Williams' dark, narrow office is dominated by a large painting of a vulture pecking at a meaty buffalo skull. For added realism, pranksters glue dead flies to the artwork.

Under 400x magnification, a slide of infected deer brain shows clumps of abnormal proteins and tiny holes amid healthy cells.

"This animal probably was quite ill," Williams says. "They develop these characteristics late in the incubation."

It's a necessary chore that distracts her from more troublesome outbreaks, like E. coli and salmonella. But working the killing hole would be worse.

"Nobody likes killing healthy animals," she says.

Where did it start? Some believe CWD is endemic. Or, it might've been sparked during a nutritional study by Colorado biologists in the late 1960s in which sheep were penned with deer. Three dozen deer died, while others were returned to the wild or sold to zoos.

Critics point out that interspecies transmission is difficult. Mad cow and the human version, it is believed, occurred after infected carcasses were used in livestock feed.

The federal government has set aside $12.5 million for CWD losses. McConnell said he is fighting for "100 percent compensation" and calculates his share to be at least $3.2 million.

His ranch must remain CWD-free for five years. He plans to reintroduce what didn't work here before - cattle. Or maybe bison.

"I've had the yak people calling," he adds. Would he then be called Mr. Yak? (Note: The license plate is available.)

Harder to replace will be a way of life. McConnell's youngest son, Brolin, planned to raise elk and extend the family's High Plains heritage.

"Now that's shot out of the saddle," Noreen McConnell said.

She started thinking about the cake for Brolin's upcoming 16th birthday, then paused to look out the window at the backhoe working the hole.

Deeper. Wider.

"We're going ahead with the party," Noreen decided. "But I think I'll put a curtain over that window."

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Forum | Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Volunteer | Donate | About Us | Contact Us | Email This Page

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.
Please Support Our Sponsors!

Organic Valley

Organic
Valley

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

Dr. Bronner's
Magic Soaps

Botani Organic

Botani
Organic

Aloha Bay

Aloha Bay

Eden Organics

Eden Foods

Frey Vineyards

Frey
Vineyards

Intelligent Nutrients

Intelligent
Nutrients