CWD concern leaves this year's stock show without an elk sale

January 6, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Uncertainty caused by an outbreak of chronic wasting disease discovered on several Colorado elk ranches last year prompted organizers of the Colorado Select Elk Sale at the National Western Stock Show to cancel this year's event.

State veterinary officials had imposed a ban on elk movement as they investigated how far the fatal brain-wasting malady had spread when Steve Wolcott, the sale's organizer, opted in October to suspend the country's premier elk auction.

'This was kind of the flagship auction in the U.S.,' said Wolcott, a Paonia elk breeder and president of the Elk and Bison Co., which has the contract with National Western to conduct the auction. 'It's going to have a negative effect on the industry, not only in Colorado but the whole country.' Total sales at the 2001 auction approached $ 155,000, an 8 percent drop from the year before. This will be the first time since elk sales first appeared at National Western in 1996 that the brawny animals won't grace the auction floor.

'It's been very successful,' said James Goodrich, livestock manager for National Western. 'Initially the amount of public interest in it was huge. As people became accustomed to it, there wasn't quite the level of interest as there had been, but it was still very successful.'

Goodrich said this was the first time a livestock sale had been canceled since a hoof-and-mouth disease scare in the 1920s.

But the auction faced a kind of double whammy: Not only was the marketability of Colorado elk tarnished, tighter certification requirements limited the number of herds in other states that would qualify for entry to Colorado.

Any elk now entering the state must come from a herd that has been under surveillance and certified as CWD-free for at least 36 months.

'There were too many unknowns,' Goodrich said. 'My gut feeling is that they thought with all the attention surrounding it and those restrictions that it was better not to subject National Western and themselves to any additional controversy.'

By December, Colorado agriculture officials declared the outbreak contained, but emergency restrictions on elk movement were still in place.

'We feel we have really gotten ahold of the situation as far as the spread of the disease is concerned,' Colorado's state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham said. 'It was much less than what we anticipated.'

Wolcott said that after weathering the storm, the elk trade will bounce back. Like a 1992 outbreak of tuberculosis, which affected two state ranches, he said he believes the investigation and tougher certification requirements will result in a higher confidence that remaining herds are disease free.

Nine Colorado elk farms remain under quarantine, and state agriculture officials intend to begin destroying the 1,500 elk exposed to infected animals as soon as federal assistance becomes available.

The outbreak has been traced to Elk Echo, a Stoneham ranch whose operator was one of the largest elk brokers in the country.

Two cases of CWD have been confirmed on the ranch, located in northeast Colorado near Sterling. Twelve other cases dating back to 1998 have been diagnosed in Elk Echo elk, including two in Nebraska. Kansas officials recently confirmed that state's first-ever case of CWD in an elk purchased from Elk Echo owner Craig McConnell.

Three other ranches that branched off from McConnell's operation are among the nine under quarantine.

Elk ranchers say the Colorado Division of Wildlife is ultimately to blame for their problem because officials failed to control the disease in wild deer herds. DOW researchers argue they acted in good faith given their limited knowledge about CWD. The agency has long warned that the close quarters under which ranched elk are kept could serve as a potential incubator for an outbreak.

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