Federal funds seal fate of 350 elk; Aid to stem spread of disease

January 31, 2002 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Three hundred fifty elk in a San Luis Valley ranch are slated to be destroyed next week after Wednesday's release of $ 12.5 million in federal assistance, Colorado agriculture officials said.

Ranchers had demanded compensation before they let their 1,500 elk, quarantined on nine elk ranches, be killed to control the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The money also will pay for tests on the animals' brains for the aberrant protein that causes the disease, giving researchers valuable knowledge on the progression of the outbreak. And it will give the Colorado elk industry's tattered reputation a boost by allowing them to declare the state's ranched elk herd, the second largest in the nation, free of the disease.

'This will let us get rid of those (CWD-)positive herds and help us get our act cleaned up,' said Ron Walker, president of the Colorado Elk Breeder's Association.

But it took a call to the White House from U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., to break the funds loose.

Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a national chronic wasting disease emergency in October, the release of additional money promised in November kept receding into the distance.

'This is a disease that's on the spread and we have to get it under control quickly,' said Allard, a veterinarian.

The nine elk ranchers have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars feeding animals they knew were doomed. Agriculture officials say the infection flared on a Stoneham elk ranch, which then sold animals to the other facilities.

'It has been devastating to the ranchers involved, and not only because of the emotional stress of knowing their animals will be destroyed,' said Walker.

Allard said the final obstacle involved the amount of matching funds required by the Credit Commodity Corporation, which controls the funds.

Colorado officials wanted 100 percent federal aid, but agreed to come up with a 5 percent match. Normally the agency requires a 50 percent match, Allard said.

'It's a massive victory for Colorado,' said Greg Walcher, the executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources. 'The issue of chronic wasting disease has been so divisive and contentious, and a lot of that divisiveness I think will be resolved once these funds are put to use.'

Walcher and other state officials have watched with dismay since last fall as a bitter split between the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the Agriculture Department over how to control the disease developed.

The fight culminated last month when the DOW took control over elk imports and required that elk be monitored for CWD for five years before entering the state.

Elk ranchers and ag officials complain the agency has done little to control CWD in wild herds in northeastern Colorado, a huge infection reservoir they see as a continuing threat to the industry.

Wildlife officials worried the infection would jump from two ranched herds in western Colorado.

The 350 animals at Rancho Anta Grande in Del Norte, where one clinical case of CWD was diagnosed, will be the first to go.

The other seven ranches lie within the 15,000-square mile endemic area of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, where an average of 5 percent of wild deer and less than 1 percent of elk are infected.

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