Wasting disease traced to ranch Vet: Closure of elk pen would have limited spread

October 5, 2001 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
The outbreak of chronic wasting disease among Colorado elk ranches could have been limited if a Stoneham elk rancher had closed one elk pen as recommended, the state veterinarian said Thursday.

Instead, the rancher continued to place more elk in the 40-acre pasture at the Elk Echo Ranch and then sold them, Dr. Wayne Cunningham said.

'This resulted in a major extension of the disease,' he said.

Six ranches are now under quarantine because of animals traced to the ranch facility, which is linked to three additional operations run by Elk Echo's founder, Craig McConnell. A separate Longmont farm is also quarantined. McConnell, 46, disputes the state's claim.

The spread of the disease has wildlife officials on pins and needles because two of the facilities, a ranch in Del Norte and a shooting park in Cowdrey, offer potential launching points for CWD to infect Colorado's famed Western Slope game herds. Hunting and wildlife tourism add $ 3 billion to the Colorado economy each year.

Cunningham said elk raised on the Elk Echo ranch over the years have been shipped to 15 states and 45 facilities in Colorado. Eighty of those animals are considered 'high risk,' meaning they were in contact with infected animals. The Elk Echo ranch may have been infected since 1995.

On Thursday, Cunningham told the state board of agriculture commissioners that drastic action is required to save the state captive elk industry, which is second only to Minnesota's in size.

About 1,300 elk under quarantine will be destroyed and tested for the fatal brain-wasting malady, even though only five of the 16,000 elk at Colorado's 145 elk farms have tested positive for the disease. Carcasses will be reduced to ash in a special incinerator that burns hot enough to destroy the hardy prion protein that researchers believe causes the disease.

'If we don't get control of it, producers in Colorado are out of business,' Cunningham said. The agriculture commission adopted several emergency measures Thursday, including an import ban on elk to Colorado unless they come from a herd that has been monitored for three years. In addition, the commission banned new elk ranches in the endemic area northeast of Denver.

And no ranched elk can be moved out of the endemic area unless its herd has been CWD-free for 36 months.

Elk Echo first came under suspicion in 1998, when a Nebraska bull kept there for three months died of the disease. Over the next two years, one bull and two other cow elk raised at the farm died in Nebraska.

'We should have closed him down at that point,' Cunningham said.

McConnell said he complied with the quarantine plan issued in May 2000. The elk seen in the quarantined pen were born there and temporarily pastured there because of high water in their other pen, he said. The only elk sold from that pen, he added, went to Rancho Anta Grande in Del Norte, which was quarantined two weeks ago.

McConnell said all the bad publicity about Elk Echo and the three related operations has convinced him to leave the business.

'I'm toast,' he said. 'I'm wiped out.'

Federal and state compensation programs will help recoup his losses, though he hopes to become a broker for other ranchers. Steve Wolcott, who has a small herd in Paonia, said the industry has faced these kinds of threats before, with tuberculosis, brucellosis and scrapie. 'Ranchers have a relationship with our animals,' he said. 'These are not just economic units. We take care of them, and they take care of us. So it's tough when you see this happening to one of us.'

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