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Elk to the slaughter;
exposure to CWD is a death sentence for a game ranch

June 1, 2002 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Todd Hartman
"Got elk?" read the signs along U.S. 160, steering curious drivers to a dirt and gravel driveway on the western fringe of the San Luis Valley's wide open flatlands.

Not anymore.

The 337 elk that once wandered in the shadows of the San Juans, at the Rancho de Anta Grande - "Ranch of the Big Elk" - were slaughtered in February, their heads sawed off and their carcasses tossed into a makeshift blast furnace that reduced the once elegant herd to an ash pile the size of a minivan.

Government workers from the U.S. and Colorado departments of agriculture were forced to do the dirty, depressing job, but the true culprit was the brain-rotting sickness called chronic wasting disease.

It's a killer so feared by regulators that entire elk herds, like Anta Grande's, are slaughtered even though officials know only a tiny handful of the exposed creatures are probably carrying the disease. They do not want to take any chances. "My whole ranch was based off these elk," said Rich Forrest, owner of the ill-fated Anta Grande ranch.

Wandering among his condemned herd on the chilly eve of the slaughter, he reminisced of breeding the "mellow," gentle animals that he could greet day and night by just walking out the back door of his home.

Around him, elk drank from a garden hose or strolled about the ranch, unperturbed by the preparations, blissfully ignorant of their fate.

"The disease," he said, "is ruining the reason for the ranch to exist."

If elk ranches had obituaries, CWD would be the cause of death for 38 U.S. facilities since 1997, places such as Anta Grande, and others with majestic, even macho names, like Trophy Mountain, All American Antler and TNT Elk.

A relatively young industry, elk ranches have been converted to killing fields in six states: Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kansas. Total dead: more than 3,800. Total shown to be infected: about 180, with some tests outstanding.

In Colorado alone, agricultural officials have put down 3,076 elk, the 337 euthanized at Anta Grande among them.

In Saskatchewan, the government has slaughtered nearly 8,000 elk on 39 game farms. In March, the crisis spread to Alberta, where 150 elk will likely be the first to die on a newly infected ranch in that province. If history holds, they won't be the last.

The disease has even found its way to South Korea, where elk transplanted from Canada in the mid-1990s were found to carry CWD.

"We've brought elk ranchers to their knees," said Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament, an industry backer who has nevertheless had to oversee the CWD-forced destruction of ranch herd after ranch herd in the state. "It will be very difficult for the industry to survive."

LEAN MEAT AND RICH VELVET

Rich Forrest spent years as an exploration geologist, the kind of rockhound who forgoes the beaten path in a worldwide search for overlooked mineral lodes.

Fueled by junk food and airline fare in his pressure-filled quest for the next big score, his stress level shot up and a heart attack suggested it was time for a lifestyle change.

A doctor recommended Forrest start with food - elk meat - because it's leaner, lower in cholesterol, easier on the heart. By 1997, Forrest had taken that advice a giant step further.

In keeping with his tendency to look outside the mainstream, Forrest spotted a hot Korean market for velvet from elk antlers. Naturally, he began raising the animals himself.

He purchased a domestic herd and a scenic ranch 25 miles east of Wolf Creek Pass, near the town of Del Norte and not far from where the waters of the Rio Grande pour out of the spectacular San Juan Range. "Idyllic," he called it.

Among his proudest achievements were two bulls that churned out velvet by the pound. In contests most Americans don't have the faintest idea even exist, his animals won big prizes.

There was Anta CZAR, the national 4-year-old velvet champion in 1998. Then there was an elk named Quebeau, the 2001 Mature Grand Champion Velvet Bull for the southwestern United States.

Antlers are cut from the bulls' heads every summer, and velvet stripped off. It's sold, primarily to Asian markets, for use in holistic medicines, for arthritis relief and even as an aphrodisiac.

At its peak in the early 1990s, velvet antler fetched nearly $100 a pound. When Forrest entered the business, in the mid-1990s, velvet brought between $60 to $80 a pound. Since the CWD outbreak, the market has crashed. South Korea stopped importing and prices fell to around $12 a pound.

Meat would prove another biggie for Forrest. He set up a store where passers-by could purchase from a smorgasbord of elk meats - "Rib Eye Steak, the hunter's favorite, $19.50 per pound," says his Internet menu. Phone orders welcome. Visa/Mastercard accepted.

Another big market: raising and selling trophy bulls to hunting ranches. Breeders can get thousands of dollars per animal selling big-antlered elk to shooting ranches. Those operations, in turn, charge perhaps $5,000 to $20,000, or even more, for the right to "hunt" and kill the penned animal.

Some operations even haul the client's trophy to a scenic locale, where the shooter gets a photo with his kill, evoking a Rocky Mountain image of Hemingway on safari.

Forrest dabbled in breeding hunting bulls, even sold a few, but didn't stick with it. "Not my cup of tea," he said.

FROM WILD ANIMAL TO 'CROP'

Echoing patterns elsewhere in the American West, Colorado's earliest elk ranches date back at least to the 1960s, when a handful of people kept wild elk captive as a quirky hobby. From 1980 to 1994, the industry grew from perhaps 10 operations to nearly 50.

A colorful man named Lou Wyman professes to be the state's first elk rancher. In the 1960s he went to the state legislature asking to raise elk as livestock on his Western Slope ranch south of Craig.

Wyman assembled his herd from some unlikely places, including the city and county of Denver. It sold him 60 to 70 head - at a now-puny sum of $50 apiece - from its herd in its mountain park of Genesee.

"We sold every part of an elk there is," said Wyman, spinning his tale from the porch of his log home. "We found some Chinese who wanted tendons out of the leg. We sold male bladders for $20 to a biotechnology institute."

Wyman rode elk ranching all the way to the top. Eventually, the industry boomed around him. The biggest growth spurt came in the mid-1990s.

That's when state lawmakers, under pressure from elk ranchers, shifted oversight of captive elk herds in 1994 from the Division of Wildlife to the friendlier Department of Agriculture.

Now, Colorado is home to 129 captive elk ranches with some 10,000 head. Though precise figures are elusive, Colorado appears second only to Minnesota, with more than 200 such ranches, according to the North American Elk Breeders Association.

Lawmakers allowed the regulatory switch in '94 despite bitter protests from state wildlife advocates, many of whom opposed, on ethical grounds, the entire notion of keeping wild animals behind fences. Critics, now appearing prescient, also worried about the spread of disease.

To breeders, the switch made sense. Elk are ideally suited for ranching, they say. Ranchers trumpet their operations as clean, humane and a salvation for family farmers who have suffered through plunging crop and cattle prices.

And after all, ranchers say, just look at the creatures.

"Regal and graceful," say promotional materials from the North American Elk Breeders Association. "Elk display an uncommon level of intelligence and adaptability."

That elk can represent both elegant wildlife, and a modern-day version of penned cattle, was summed up by a Montana game rancher, Len Wallace, who once told a writer, "Elk are a grand animal, they have a grandeur," he said.

"But they are a crop."

The crop was good to Wyman. His timing was even better. He just so happened to quit the business - "too many regulations," he said - around 1997, just as CWD found its way into a South Dakota elk farm, its ruinous debut on the U.S. industry scene.

TRACING CWD'S DEADLY SPREAD

How chronic wasting disease spread ranch-to-ranch, state-to-state, even possibly from zoos is a complicated, controversial tale fraught with speculation.

But CWD's tear through Colorado's elk industry appears easier to explain - and it was a rampage that went right through Rich Forrest and his Anta Grande ranch.

The end for Forrest began in March 2000, when he purchased 16 female calves from the Elk Echo Ranch, a large elk operation located near a blip on the prairie of northeastern Colorado, a tiny town called Stoneham.

A year would go by. Nothing appeared amiss.

Then, in May 2001, Forrest saw one of those former Elk Echo calves, now a 2-year-old adult, dropping weight like a hunger-striker. Forrest had one thought.

"I'm toast."

Forrest, 54, with a master's degree and a mountain man kind of independence, was a quick study. That dreaded invader, chronic wasting disease, was here.

"I tried to make her comfortable," he said. "Most people would have tried to medicate her. I knew that wasn't going to make any difference."

Elk number Y950 - the closest most farm animals ever get to a name - wasted away in a single summer. She started keeping to herself. The other elk avoided her. When she did try to eat, they bullied her. Once 420 pounds, she dropped weight even as she was about to calve.

"The other animals seemed to sense something was awry with her," said Colorado state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham, a man who has seen more drooling, wobbling, wasting elk than college ever prepared him for.

The sick cow gave birth in June. Her calf, which Forrest describes as "small and very unusual," died in just three weeks, apparently from neglect. The cow herself died in late August in pen No. 6.

Following state rules set down in 1998, Forrest agreed to have the elk's brain tissues analyzed. Tests at a Wyoming laboratory revealed the telltale microscopic cavities that signal CWD.

On Sept. 14, the state veterinarian ordered the entire Anta Grande herd quarantined - the elk-equivalent of a sentence to death by lethal injection.

Why? There is no proven way to test a live elk for CWD, a deficiency in the science of the disease that forces regulators to wipe out an entire herd when exposed to even a single sick animal.

Following the death of Y950, livestock regulators then traced the animal back to Elk Echo. On Sept. 24 that ranch, too, was placed under quarantine. So were three nearby elk ranches that frequently mixed livestock with Elk Echo.

Soon after, on Oct. 1, the Trophy Mountain shooting ranch in north-central Colorado, near Cowdrey, was quarantined after a bull elk killed by a hunter turned up CWD-positive. Two Trophy Mountain elk would test positive in later weeks.

All three of those animals came from Elk Echo.

Almost overnight, the Stoneham facility found itself at the vortex of the disease's spread.

In hindsight, it wasn't surprising.

The Elk Echo ranch is within the so-called "endemic area" of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming where 5 to 15 percent of wild deer are believed to carry the infection, and may have passed it to the captive elk.

On top of that, Elk Echo's owner, Craig McConnell, was, by his own admission, among the most aggressive elk dealers in the country.

"I once spent $122,000 in three hours at the Minnesota Elk Sale! We bought elk from 62 people, including four dispersal herds," McConnell wrote in an online essay for the Deer & Elk Farmers Digest in October. "Buying and selling is the name of the game - and I loved it!"

State veterinarian Wayne Cunningham told reporters at the time that McConnell wasn't as careful as he should have been in keeping elk from a potentially contaminated 40-acre pen - an accusation McConnell has called "not true."

"For sure, if I had thought I had the disease," McConnell wrote separately, "I would not have sold animals to anyone."

Soon, agriculture regulators would trace 158 elk, most from Elk Echo, to 22 other ranches in Colorado. They traced about 250 more from Elk Echo - and from other Colorado ranches that had hosted CWD-exposed Elk Echo animals - to ranches in 15 states.

All 400-plus elk were killed. After testing, regulators found that eight Colorado ranches had been exposed to infected elk from Elk Echo. Another ranch, TNT in Longmont, also had infected elk, but it appears - though it can't be proved - that those animals picked up CWD from wild animals in the endemic area.

Nationally, only one ranch, in Kansas, is known to have ended up with an infected animal connected to Elk Echo.

THE KILLING FIELD

With a condemned herd, Forrest could do little more than await the execution date. It wouldn't come for four-plus months.

It took that long for the USDA to free up money to compensate Forrest and other owners of quarantined elk ranches. The payment - of up to $2,850 per CWD-free animal - was the cost the public paid to slaughter thousands of healthy animals to nab the handful of sick ones lurking in the crowd.

It wasn't until a frigid day in February when state and federal workers descended on the site and set up the killing line.

The first step: Dig a cremation pit, 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 15 feet deep, where Forrest would watch workers incinerate his dreams.

The job began early the next day. The workers injected each elk with a sedative, xylazine, then steered the groggy creatures through chutes and onto a platform, where they administered an overdose of sodium pentabarbital, the same drug commonly used to euthanize aging family pets.

Another team worked the carcasses onto a flatbed truck, four at a time, to carve out tissue samples from the liver, kidney, muscle and intestines. Still another team beheaded the animals for study of brain matter.

With gruesome efficiency in miserable weather, a team of about a dozen people put down the entire herd in less than a week.

INFECTION RATE LESS THAN FEARED

Weeks after February's government-run slaughter at Forrest's ranch, brain tissues examined at a Colorado State University diagnostic laboratory found only two additional elk of the 337 to be carrying the disease.

One of those was Forrest's one-time velvet champion "Quebeau," who originally came from Stoneham, and may have picked up the disease there. The other was B966, a female that probably acquired CWD from the the elk cow Y950, also from Stoneham, that died on Forrest's ranch and kicked off the frenzy of quarantines.

As it turned out, the two CWD-positive elk - Quebeau and B966 - mated and produced a calf, yb966. That calf was one of 11 that Forrest sought to save from the killing, arguing that, for a variety of reasons, they should be kept alive for research purposes in a secure facility within the endemic area.

As for yb966, what better subject to study than a calf whose mother and father were both CWD-positive.

But it wasn't to be.

Despite memos to the USDA in Washington, D.C., and Colorado, and pleadings to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the 11 calves, including yb966, were killed in March, as part of the CWD eradication program.

"The USDA would not budge," Forrest said in an e-mail. "They declared that I was not a valid researcher and the facility offered in the endemic area was not 'biosecure.' Give me a break. It is surrounded by diseased wild animals.

"The very healthy calf yb966 may have had a natural immunity to CWD," Forrest continued. "Now we will never know, and time-wise a bit of intriguing research is delayed by many months, maybe several years."

Despite that dust-up, the overall findings at Anta Grande were a relief to state veterinarian Cunningham, who expected five or six positives. The findings were even better at the next site, Cowdrey, where not one of the 205 elk tested positive, even though three animals on the ranch were previously found to be infected.

At Stoneham, after killing 1,019 animals, 29 tested positive, a fairly big number, but still just 3 percent of the elk. The number supported industry and some scientific contentions that the disease is not passed easily in elk, even under confined circumstances.

But even that isn't certain. In seven South Dakota herds slaughtered in recent years, 110 of 353 captive elk were found with CWD, a rate of nearly 33 percent. That may be because the disease sat quietly for several years - giving it time to spread behind fences - before authorities found it, according to the South Dakota state veterinarian's office.

As for Colorado, though, Cunningham and teams of exhausted workers on what had become a kind of deadly disassembly line breathed a sigh of relief.

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

But Cunningham spoke too soon. A few weeks later, the state was making plans to put down a Western Slope elk ranch of 103 animals after wild deer were found with CWD both inside and outside the facility's fences. However, the ranch owner has hired lawyers and is fighting attempts to exterminate his herd.

As for Forrest, he's recovering from what was a heartbreaking ordeal. He and his wife have created a CWD foundation, devoted to advancing the science on the disease, particularly in areas where the government may not be looking.

He's now in the elk meat distribution business, selling product raised on other ranches. But he misses his animals. Whether he can restock his ranch remains unclear.

Part of the official concern: Would his soil be contaminated with the nearly indestructible prion that infected his previous elk?

Forrest hopes something is worked out.

"We will stay in the elk business one way or the other," Forrest said. "Maybe even get a few elk as pets again - if the government will let us."

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