Agencies tackling deer, elk disease

October 16, 2001 Scripps Howard News Service by Katy Human
State agriculture and wildlife experts decided this week to tackle a devastating disease of wild and domestic deer and elk with new, permanent restrictions on Colorado's elk ranchers, hunters and wildlife managers.

By January, Colorado's Agriculture and Wildlife commissioners will consider new rules designed to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal "prion" disease that destroys the brains of infected animals. Both agencies passed short-term emergency regulations earlier this month after six cases popped up in elk ranches around the state in recent weeks. State agriculture veterinarian Wayne Cunningham and wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller will convene a group of disease experts in the next two weeks to discuss possible regulations for the agriculture and wildlife commissions.

Given the level of emotion at Monday's meeting, any new regulations are likely to be strongly disputed by one group or another.

Denny Behrens, representing Colorado Sportsmen, warned the group gathered at the Division of Wildlife's Denver office that severe action should be taken immediately to control wasting disease, which he says threatens Western Slope hunting, an important part of the region's economy.

"Look at mad cow disease in Europe," he said, referring to another disease caused by prions. "They waited and waited. If we wait, we will end up with what happened overseas."

Behrens suggested eradicating wild elk and deer from the so-called "endemic area," a broad region north of Fort Collins, where chronic wasting disease is most prevalent. He blasted elk ranchers for spreading the disease around the state by selling and buying animals from one another.

But elk ranchers at the meeting pleaded for their livelihoods.

Emergency regulations have already reduced Colorado's elk breeder's access to more than 90 percent of elk herds across the country, said Steve Wolcott of the Colorado Game Breeders Association. Emergency rules require that an elk herd be monitored for wasting disease for three years before it can sell any animals to Colorado farms; new rules may push that to five years.

"People will go out of businesses if it happens too quickly," Wolcott warned.

Cunningham, state veterinarian for the agriculture department, agreed. Elk ranchers make much of their money selling breeding animals, Cunningham said. Ranchers also sell meat and velvet antlers.

Craig McConnell, an elk rancher in northeastern Colorado whose herd has been infected with chronic wasting disease, suggested killing all elk in ranches in the endemic area. He and his wife blamed the Division of Wildlife for failing to control the disease when it was first identified several decades ago.

"We're all toast, financially," said Noreen McConnell. She questioned why the Division of Wildlife was pushing for quick and tight regulation of domestic elk herds but not considering their own regulations until the next hunting season.

The Division of Wildlife is considering tightening regulation of the disposal of elk and deer carcasses, meat processing and taxidermy.

Rick Kahn, wildlife manager with the division, said many of those proposed rules are already in effect voluntarily.

John Pape, state epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, said there is little evidence that wasting disease can affect humans, as mad cow disease does.

Nevertheless, he doesn't want to see the disease spread, either in the wild or in domestic herds. "Ten years down the line, we don't want to be stuck with a sudden human health issue," he said.

(Contact Katy Human of the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at humank(at)

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