State struggles to rein elk illness 1,000 with brain-wasting disease will be destroyed in latest effort

September 21, 2001 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
About 1,000 elk on three Colorado ranches are under quarantine and will be destroyed because the herds are infected with chronic wasting disease.

Concerned state agriculture officials are scrambling to contain the fatal brain-wasting malady one week after placing private elk herds in Stoneham, Longmont and Del Norte under quarantine for up to five years.

The 700-head Stoneham herd, east of Sterling, and the 31-head Longmont herd are in an area where free-ranging mule deer have been infected for about four decades. But the elk trade has shipped the disease all the way down to Del Norte in the San Luis Valley. Russell George, director of Colorado's Division of Wildlife, said his concern now is preventing the spread of the disease into the state's world-renowned Western Slope elk and deer herds.

'We simply can't let it get away,' he said. 'What if we lose our deer and elk herds, or create such a concern that no one will want to hunt them? That's why we want the remedy to be sudden, dramatic and complete.'

Lab analysis showed the brain of a cow elk that died recently at the Del Norte ranch was infected, said Dr. Wayne Cunningham, the state veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture. None of the 300 other elk in that herd have developed symptoms, which include unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

But the progressive disease takes at least 18 months to develop, and there is no way to test live elk.

The Del Norte elk was bought from the Stoneham herd, which has been infected since 1995, wildlife officials now believe.

It's unclear whether the elk were raised for meat or for their velvety spring antlers, which can fetch as much as $ 70 per pound as a nutritional supplement.

While there are no documented cases of the disease infecting humans, chronic wasting disease is closely related to mad cow disease, which has killed about 100 Europeans who ate infected British beef.

State wildlife officials say elk ranchers have spread the disease to other ranches as far away as Saskatchewan, Montana and South Dakota. Elk ranchers say ranched elk were originally infected by wild deer and blame the wildlife agency for not eradicating deer in the endemic area, which runs from Fort Collins to Cheyenne.

'We don't want people to think this is our problem,' said Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeders Association. 'It's our problem because it was the Division of Wildlife's problem and they didn't do anything about it.'

But Michael Miller, the division's wildlife veterinarian, said the agency has long been warning that the transport of ranched elk would spread the disease much faster than it does in nature. Earlier this year, the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency ordered the slaughter of 1,000 game farm elk in Saskatchewan.

Alerted to the problem last week, the state wildlife commission passed an emergency regulation banning the import of deer or elk to the state unless they came from disease-free herds.

'This is quite honestly what we've been worried about and cautioning strongly against since the mid-1990s,' said Miller, one of the national leaders in chronic wasting disease research. 'We tried to get things in place six years ago and failed. It's unfortunate but predictable.'

In the early 1990s, the wildlife agency tried to restrict new game farms, but elk breeders got support for a bill that allowed them to be managed as 'alternative livestock' under the Department of Agriculture.

The first cases of wasting disease in ranched Colorado elk were reported in a small Hudson herd, which was destroyed in 1999.

Cunningham pointed out that agriculture officials instituted a disease surveillance program in 1998, which led to the quarantine of the three herds.

Cunningham said the state intends to slaughter all 1,000 elk and take brain samples to determine whether other animals were infected. He said the state is seeking federal assistance for the three affected elk breeders. A separate fund is maintained by the Colorado Elk Breeders Association.

Each elk is worth about $ 2,000.

The wildlife agency is worried because most of its annual budget comes from hunter license sales. Private outfitters may charge $ 10,000 for a trophy bull hunt.

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