Elk-import plan's rejection sets up showdown

January 8, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
The Colorado Alternative Livestock Board Monday rejected tough new elk import regulations proposed by the Division of Wildlife because of the likely economic impact on state elk ranchers.

But Russell George, the wildlife agency's director, said he'll override the board's recommendation and present the new rules to the wildlife commission on Thursday, setting up a showdown with the state Agriculture Department.

The proposals, presented by DOW veterinarian Mike Miller, would require that any elk entering Colorado come from a herd that has been free of chronic-wasting disease for at least five years. 'I'm not trying to put anyone out of business,' George said. 'I'm trying to make sure we do everything we can to prevent the spread of this disease.'

The proposal also would strip import approval authority from the Colorado Agriculture Department's Brand Inspection Board and return it to the wildlife agency.

But elk breeders and the Agriculture Department say they're opposed to removing import authority from the brand board, in part because elk are also tested for tuberculosis and brucellosis - two diseases that could devastate the state's huge cattle industry. The USDA requires the state veterinarian's office to test for those diseases.

Elk breeders and agriculture officials favor increasing the surveillance requirement from the existing 36 months to 60 months, but in steps between now and 2004.

'Without a phase-in, this would be untenable for the industry,' said Ron Walker, a board member and president of the Colorado Elk Breeder's Association. 'We all agree we have to get there.'

Colorado state veterinarian Wayne Cunningham, who has led the investigation into the CWD outbreak that has left nine herds and 1,500 elk under quarantine, said in all 14 Colorado cases, symptoms of the fatal brain-wasting malady showed up within 28 months of the elk's exposure to the infectious agent that causes the disease.

But Miller, a leader in CWD research, said one elk in the division's ongoing CWD research developed the disease after a 58-month incubation period.

'In fact, under a 36-month surveillance requirement, the herd in the research pens would have qualified as CWD-free twice since 1985,' said Miller.

After a day of dueling testimony, the board opposed recommending the regulations on a 4-2 vote. The board's two elk breeders and agriculture officials, including Cunningham, voted as a bloc to blunt the DOW proposals.

Some of the 20 elk breeders there were frustrated with the DOW, which they see as ultimately responsible for the CWD epidemic. Several said the greatest long-term threat comes not from importing CWD, but from the huge reservoir of infection in wild herds in northeastern Colorado.

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