Wasting disease worries ranchers San Luis Valley cattle mingle with wild elk

December 14, 2001 The Denver Post by Mark H. Hunter
MONTE VISTA - In southern Colorado's San Luis Valley, where 90,000 cows are raised on 800 ranches, the outbreak of chronic wasting disease in captive elk has some ranchers concerned that the disease could spread to wild elk that often mingle with their cattle.

While recent tests of ranched elk indicate the outbreak is contained, state officials are worried that until 1,500 elk from nine quarantined herds in Colorado - including 400 elk at a Del Norte ranch - are destroyed, the fatal disease could still spread.

'We think we've got the outside ring of this contained,' Jim Grady, a state veterinarian, told about 100 ranchers at the recent Southern Rocky Mountain Forage and Livestock Conference. 'All the Del Norte animals (at Rancho Anta Grande) will be destroyed in the next two or three weeks.' Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, related to diseases such as scrapie in sheep and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called 'mad cow disease,' which recently ravaged Great Britain's cattle industry.

Proteins in the brain called 'prions' mutate, causing the victim's brain stem to become sponge-like and disrupting the nervous system, according to Grady. Normal involuntary functions like swallowing become impossible, and the victim - animal or human - dehydrates and starves to death. More than 100 Britons died last year from new-variant Creutzfelt-Jacob disease, which is 'positively linked to mad cow,' said Grady.

There is 'no evidence' that chronic wasting disease can jump from elk to cows or humans [There is indeed evidence that CWD prions can infect human brain tissue--BSE coordinator], Grady said. 'Are we certain it won't happen? No.

'Even though this is something we don't understand completely, we can't panic,' Grady said. 'We're in chapter seven of a mystery novel, and we don't know how it will end.'

In spite of Grady's assurances, several ranchers said they're still concerned, especially because there are no tests for live domestic animals and officials still aren't sure how the disease spreads.

'Sure, I'm concerned. There's still a lot we don't know,' said Owen Scherzer, a third-generation Del Norte-area rancher. 'It doesn't affect us yet, but if CWD can jump into (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), it will affect us all.'

Eddie Orth raises Limousine cows on a lush ranch south of Monte Vista that is often visited by wild elk. In the summer, his cows graze in the Rio Grande National Forest, where they share water troughs with wild elk and deer.

'Is there a possibility it could be linked to cattle? We just don't know for sure,' Orth said. 'We'd like to see them reduce the numbers of wild elk, and that would significantly reduce the potential for an outbreak.

'Our fear is that the American public might lose confidence in eating our beef, and that would affect everyone here,' Orth added.

Gordon Off operates a 100-year-old ranch near Del Norte, and he also pastures his cows in the national forest in the summertime. 'I suppose I should be worried about it,' said Off. 'I'm not losing any sleep over it.'

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