Former Department of Wildlife chief wants Colorado elk farming abolished

September 22, 2001 Associated Press
The former director of the state Division of Wildlife has advocated dismantling Colorado's elk farming industry to combat the spread of chronic wasting disease.

"We're just playing with fire," said John Mumma, who ran the agency from 1996 to 2000. "Immediate steps need to be taken." Mumma's recommendation comes after reports that 850 elk on three Colorado ranches will be destroyed because at least some of the animals are infected. He said the news should be a "call to arms" for those who value the state's wild deer and elk herds.

Chronic wasting disease is a degenerative disorder that attacks the brains of deer and elk. It causes unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

There are no documented cases of the disease infecting humans, but it is closely related to mad cow disease, which has killed about 100 Europeans.

There would be substantial economic trade-ins, but some officials believe it's worth making the sacrifice.

The elk industry nationwide earns $44 million from the sale of breeding stock, antler velvet, elk meat and trophy bulls for hunting ranches. Colorado's 160 elk ranches raise about 14,000 animals, the nation's second-largest captive herd behind Minnesota.

Yet, hunters from across the country pay up to $10,000 a week for a guide and a chance at a trophy Colorado bull. The state's elk herd, estimated at 260,000, is by far the largest in the country.

And hunting and fishing add some $1.7 billion to the Colorado economy every year, according to Russell George, the wildlife agency's director. He said license sales account for 63 percent of the division's budget, with most of that from hunting.

State agriculture officials and elk ranchers, meanwhile, believe they're not to blame.

The first chronic-wasting case in ranched elk was discovered in 1996, and by 1998, the industry adopted strict quarantine and control standards, said Steve Wolcott, a Paonia elk breeder and former president of the national elk breeders association.

"We moved quickly, as opposed to the Division of Wildlife, which waited 35 years to take steps to control (the disease's) spread in the wild," he said.

Wolcott said out-of state hunters can still take potentially infected deer and elk heads home with them, offering another way for disease to spread.

On Monday, the state alternative livestock board, of which Wolcott is a member, will convene an emergency meeting to consider new restrictions on importing deer and elk.

Jim Miller, the state Department of Agriculture's policy director, said finding the wasting disease shows existing monitoring programs work.

"The fact that the state discovered those animals is proof positive that the Ag Department knows what it's doing when it comes to wildlife ranching," said Miller.

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