Captive deer, elk found with CWD
Officials say quick action is needed to prevent the disease from spreading to native herds.

December 23, 2001 Omaha World-Herald by Larry Porter
Two more white-tailed deer and one elk from captive herds on a Sioux County ranch near Harrison have tested positive for chronic wasting disease, bringing the number of confirmed infected animals to seven deer and seven elk.

Nebraska Game and Park Commission officials are negotiating with rancher Richard Edwards on how to kill an estimated 200 whitetails that remain confined.

Edwards earlier agreed to a proposal by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture that will pay him a maximum of $ 3,000 for each bull elk that will be killed. Edwards said he has 95 or 96 bulls, and all but six yearlings will qualify for the maximum payment, which would total about $ 270,000. "We've sold several bulls for more than $ 20,000," Edwards said. "The average price for each bull is $ 7,500. The Department of Agriculture will pay us about half of what they're worth. That other half is where the profits are, so all we'll be doing is about breaking even."

Developing a reimbursement plan to kill the captive deer is much more sticky. Although it is legal to have captive elk, it is illegal to keep whitetails in captivity.

"I can't be compensated for the deer because I don't own them," Edwards said. "They belong to the state."

But Edwards believes he deserves compensation if all the deer on his property are killed because the value of his land is directly linked to the wildlife that lives on it.

Many sportsmen are opposed to the idea of the commission paying Edwards with money that comes from them. But Kirk Nelson, assistant director in charge of wildlife, said the matter requires immediate action.

"This is an emergency situation," Nelson said. "Time is of the essence. We have to follow the wisest course to prevent CWD from being spread to our native herds.

"It may be a bitter pill for our sportsmen to swallow if we have to come to an agreement with (Edwards). But drastic measures may be necessary. It might already be too late, but we can't assume that."

Edwards rejects the notion that his captive animals might spread CWD to wild animals. He said it's the other way around.

"We think our elk got the disease from the wild deer that were here," Edwards said.

Two of Edwards' elk tested positive for CWD in December 2000. The seven deer have tested positive within the past two months. Officials believe the disease was transmitted to the captive deer by the captive elk.

Edwards said none of his elk can be traced to a herd in which CWD has been found. Only one other infected herd has that distinction, he added, and that herd is in an area of Colorado where CWD has infected wild animals.

Nelson said commission officials are considering several options, including legal action that would force Edwards to kill all of the confined deer.

"If this is, indeed, a captive whitetail herd," Nelson said, "we can try legal action. But if (Edwards) gets an injunction, then the delay process begins. We could win the battle in court and lose the war because it would take so long.

"Our biologists don't want to wait at all. It's time for action. It's an ugly situation. The more people know about it, the more they will realize why we have to do what we have to do."

Edwards moved from Wyoming to Nebraska about 10 years ago to establish a confined hunting operation.

"My intention was to raise domestic whitetails from the get-go," Edwards said. "That's why I moved here."

But he said commission officials encouraged him not to raise domestic whitetails. Instead, he said he was encouraged to manage the wildlife that already was living on his land. Edwards said he still applied for a permit to raise domestic elk and whitetails.

"Right after that is when Game and Parks started to encourage legislation outlawing private ownership of whitetails in the state," Edwards said. "I didn't originally come over here to put up a high fence and manage the state's deer on my land. But they passed a law after I submitted an application.

"When I purchased my land, it was legal to have whitetails. I'm grandfathered in. That's what I keep telling (commission officials)."

A controversial issue is the height of the fence that encloses the deer.

Gary Schlichtemeier of Alliance, a commission biologist, said Edwards told him before CWD was discovered in the deer herd that the fence was 8 feet high.

Thus, Nelson said, technically the deer could not be considered captive because whitetails can jump over an 8-foot fence. Jumping a 10-foot fence is much more difficult.

"Because the deer supposedly could come and go," Nelson said, "we couldn't inspect the facility because it wasn't a captive herd."

On Dec. 6, after some deer had tested positive, Commission Director Rex Amack met with Edwards. Amack, fearful that infected deer could go over the fence, asked how high it was. Edwards told him it was 10 feet high.

"I never told anybody it was an 8-foot fence," Edwards said. "It's been a 10-foot fence since the day we built it."

Nelson said it became illegal to own captive whitetails in 1992. Edwards said his fence was completed in 1993. The 200 or so whitetails that now live behind the fence are descendants from a few that were on the land when it was enclosed, Edwards added.

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