63 elk exposed to disease were sold Officials track shipments to Colo. ranches, 5 states

October 2, 2001 The Denver Post by Theo Stein
Sixty-three elk exposed to chronic wasting disease at a Del Norte ranch were exported to at least five states and three other Colorado ranches before their herd was quarantined, agriculture officials disclosed Monday.

In an emergency move, officials banned the transport of domestic elk for 30 days as they shifted their focus to the search for elk shipped from seven licensed ranches now under quarantine.

More Colorado ranches are likely to be investigated as a review of records documenting the flow of animals across the state and the country continues.

On Monday, a herd of 200 elk on a shooting park in the North Park community of Cowdrey was quarantined after a bull shot by a hunter tested positive two weeks ago for the fatal brain wasting disease. With the addition of that herd, 1,300 elk now likely will be destroyed, officials said. The Cowdrey bull and 24 other hunting bulls on the North Park ranch came from Elk Echo Ranch, a Stoneham operation that investigators believe is a potential center of infection, said Dr. Wayne Cunningham, the Colorado Department of Agriculture's veterinarian.

'We want to get a handle on this as soon as possible and we want to put a stop to it,' said Jim Rubingh, the Agriculture Department's director of marketing and the chairman of the Captive Wildlife and Alternative Livestock Board.

The transport ban applies to all animals except those going to slaughter.

Elk ranchers on the board asked the Agriculture Commission to double the monitoring period for elk brought into the state to 36 months, and require a similar surveillance period for any elk moved out of the northeastern counties, where the disease has existed in wild herds for close to four decades.

The board also asked the agriculture commission to ban the construction of new elk ranches when it meets Thursday.

Other animals diseased

In addition to the Cowdrey bulls, Elk Echo Ranch also produced the cow elk diagnosed with CWD on Rancho Anta Grande in Del Norte, along with animals on the All American Antler Ranch, All American Antler Ranch Two and Country Care Ranch - all under quarantine. A call to the ranch was not returned.

Rancho Anta Grande in turn sold elk to ranches in Texas, Utah, Idaho, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, Cunningham said. Veterinary officials in Texas and Utah each said ranches in their state had bought single elk, now under quarantine. Neither animal has shown signs of the disease.

'We won't let that animal or her offspring be sold and we'll be keeping track of her for five years,' said Dr. Mike Marshall, Utah's state veterinarian. Other members of the herd can be moved only with his office's permission.

Cunningham said the Idaho herd was also quarantined.

Rich Forrest, who runs the 520-acre Rancho Anta Grande in the San Luis Valley, knows his 400 elk soon will be destroyed, even though only one has tested positive for CWD. Forrest said every elk processed for meat is tested for the disease.

'The industry has been testing these animals for several years,' he said. 'The system works, and we caught the problem. That's the good news. The bad news is it's mine.'

The bewildering turn of events has left him uncertain about his ranch's future.

'Having an elk ranch was a dream that I managed to accomplish,' he said. 'Icertainly love the animals, and I'd like to remain in the business, but that may not be possible. A lot of unknowns need to be sorted out first.'

Ranchers skeptical of aid

State agriculture officials hope a $ 2.6 million federal aid program will help ranchers such as Forrest, who remains skeptical.

'The fairness of the indemnity program remains to be demonstrated,' he said Monday.

On Friday, the alternative livestock board will meet for the third time in two weeks to decide whether to ask the state to supplement the federal aid. 'We may want to allocate some funds for depopulation,' Rubingh said.

Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy related to mad cow disease. Unlike that disease, it has not been shown to infect humans.

Symptoms of chronic wasting disease were first recognized in wild mule deer and elk in adjacent parts of Colorado and Wyoming in the late 1960s, though it wasn't diagnosed until 10 years later. The degenerative disorder attacks the brains of deer and elk, causing unsteadiness, excessive slobbering, confusion and death.

Although researchers don't know how the disease is transmitted, they do know the infectious agent persists in the environment and can sicken deer or elk that move onto contaminated ground.

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