Ranch at epicenter of elk disease; wildlife officials must share in blame, says logan county rancher

October 3, 2001 Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) by Gary Gerhardt
A Logan County elk rancher at the epicenter of animals with chronic wasting disease sold elk to ranchers throughout the country, but he said state wildlife officials may be partly to blame for spreading the sickness.

"Back in the early 1990s when the wildlife division was trying to get elk ranchers to give up red deer, they traded elk from in their pens near Kremmling for red deer," Craig McConnell, owner of four elk ranches, said Tuesday.

"Later they discovered those elk had been in with mule deer infected with CWD and they tried to buy the elk back, but didn't get them all," he added. McConnell said he was getting into the business at that time and purchased animals from herds that may have been infected.

Colorado Division of Wildlife veterinarian Mike Miller said it would be hard to prove that elk from the division carried CWD during that period.

"There was an awful lot of trading in elk in the 1980s and early 1990s and they didn't keep the identifications, surveillance or rec-ords we need today," Miller said. "But Craig does have some of his facts right."

Miller said the division was keeping mule deer infected with CWD at the Junction Butte facility near Kremmling until 1985 when they were killed.

The pens stayed empty until 1991 when an elk herd confiscated from an individual who stole them from the wild were placed in the pens for about six months.

"We did check for disease, then trade them for red deer," Miller said. "After thinking about it, we decided it wasn't a good idea and paid $70,000 to buy back as many as possible, but some had already been sold."

Chronic wasting disease is a relative of scrapies in sheep, mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. It hasn't been established that humans can contract CWD from eating deer and elk.

Elk or deer die within two years of contracting the disease, which attacks the brain, causing the animal to stagger, slobber and become confused.

McConnell has 700 elk on four ranches in northeastern Colorado. An elk cow from his Elk Echo Ranch that was purchased by Rich Forrest at the Rancho de Anta Grande near Del Norte recently died of CWD.

State veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said all 400 of the elk on the private ranch will have to be destroyed as a precaution against the disease spreading.

Forrest sold 63 elk to ranches in Colorado and five other states before his ranch was quarantined. Jim Rubingh, chairman of the Colorado Captive Wildlife and Alternative Lifestock Board, said Tuesday it was unclear how many of those animals had direct contact with the elk that died.

The disease affects 5 percent to 15 percent of the deer but only 1 percent to 5 percent of the elk in an area between Longmont and the Wyoming State line, and from the eastern edge of Cameron Pass to the Nebraska State line.

An infected bull elk was shot by a hunter on a private game ranch near Cowdrey in North Park, but it and the Del Norte cow were the only animals found outside the area in northeastern Colorado.

McConnell said he stands to lose 700 elk, which represents about a $4 million investment.

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